STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga—Born This Way (2011)

81s2bi2hv-el-_sl1500_I wanna get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Born This Way has the second-worst cover art ever attached to a mainstream pop album, right behind Girls Aloud’s Tangled Up. I can’t think of a better argument against capitalism than the idea that someone might have actually gotten paid to create that thing. Special mention must go to the font choice, which I’d have felt embarrassed to use in my year 8 PowerPoint presentations. I’m sure a lot of people feel that it’s a perfectly fair representation of the album, but I can’t agree. For one thing, the album art looks profoundly cheap, and for all this album’s maddening faults I gotta admit that there ain’t a single thing on here that sounds cheap.

Nah, this is a big, expensive mess of an album, designed chiefly as a vast monument to the suddenly-towering ego of its auteur. That’s evident from the moment the first vocals hit you on “Marry the Night”, tracing the sort of portentous, self-important vocal melody one might well expect to find on a mid-period Muse track about governments or aliens or whatnot. I mean, it’s a fair bit better than most Muse melodies, of course – because Gaga’s melodies, even at their most self-important, are just on another fuckin’ level – and I’m not gonna say I don’t like the song, but man, it sure does test me, y’know? The pulsing synth production is a little disappointingly basic and one-dimensional after The Fame Monster, leaving it pretty much entirely up to the melody to do all the heavy lifting. That melody is intelligently written and well-developed enough to save the song from the grating, insufferable pathos that sort of songwriting usually evokes, and I do end up quite enjoying the song, but it starts the album on something of a worrisome note. The outro is awesome, though – leave it to Gaga, of all pop artists, to make the final minute of her song into a sudden climactic buildup that ends up being the most important part of the song!

That self-importance is detectable everywhere across this album, whether in the melodies or elsewhere. The immediately following title track, of course, is quite possibly and infamously the most self-important pop song ever made, save perhaps for those godawful We Are The World-type savior songs that crop up a few times a decade. My thoughts on it have, weirdly, almost reversed since my last review. I now think the melody and hook are both pretty much classic Gaga greatness, but all those clashing, conflicting synths firing off in every direction do them a disservice, especially when compared with the other songs on this album that pull similarly abrasive, less confused production tricks. Throwing all these nonsensical sounds together over the top of this perfectly good hook is a child’s idea of artistic experimentation, and it reflects a profoundly misplaced artistic ego with only a superficial understanding of what it means to push boundaries. It’s an important song for the history books, of course – a veritable LGBT anthem – but I could do without it doing so much to rub it in my face, you know?

It’s a shame, because there are some genuinely weird moments on this album. Some of them, indeed, are among my favourite things Gaga has ever done. “Judas” might be one of the most sonically abrasive songs ever put out by a major pop artist, and it’s certainly one of the weirdest charting hits in recent memory. It’s electro-dancepop taken to its most aggressive possible extreme, with the usual thumping drums, glaring synths and punchy bass made into instruments of raw physical force, crushing all in their path as Gaga recites lyrics in a dread monotone over the top, presiding over the destruction like some vengeful witch-queen. She emits some glorious descending wails in the prechorus, rending through the cacophony like a knife, and then out of nowhere one of the best damn hooks of the century explodes forth from the gloom and makes it fully clear why this hit the top ten. It’s got that same beautiful blend of regret and soaring power that made all the best hooks on The Fame Monster work, and it adds enough extra context to the roaring anger of the verses that they end up elevating rather than contradicting each other. It’s also got just about the only spoken-word Gaga bridge I actually like, partly because it’s attached to a pretty neat breakdown and partly because she produces and presents the spoken vocals properly, emotively whispering and multi-tracking them enough to create an atmosphere and maybe – just maybe – even a little bit of an emotional impact. It’s a great song in many regards, and I’ve listened to it countless times while writing this very paragraph. People are usually correct to say that Gaga’s music never matched the carefully-managed weirdness she projected with her public image at the time, but this song was an exception – and it wasn’t the only one.

You’ve also got “Government Hooker”, which I’ve shifted opinions on more times than I can count and which certainly lives up to whatever you might be expecting from the title. A brief, vaguely faux-operatic intro leads into the sort of dark, bleepy pop-industrial synth that wouldn’t sound overly out of place on a mid-period Nine Inch Nails album, complete with malfunctioning electronic crunches and riffs that sound like they came out of the darker underbelly of the 80s. Of course, much like mid-period Nine Inch Nails, I’m not at all sure how good it is; it’s kinda lacking in the really memorable vocal melodies Gaga was usually so good at, and the hook, as intriguing and abrasive as her accusatory wails of “HOOOOOOOKER!” are, isn’t as complete or well-developed as Gaga hooks usually are. Still, the structure is kinda subtly weird in that classic Gaga way, and I can’t deny that it has a certain irresistible magnetism once you get past how utterly corny the lyrics are (hah – another Nine Inch Nails parallel!). I’ll chalk this one up as good and encourage it to leave before I change my mind.

The industrial side of the 80s isn’t the only side present on this album, either. “Bloody Mary” is one of my favourite Gaga deep cuts, and while it does borrow a little from industrial – those synths in the verses sound rather like monstrous cybernetic beasts rumbling and growling from a black pit below – it mostly feels like a great big tribute to the new wave and synthpop that defined so much of that era’s popular music. The bassline in the steadily building prechorus is a new romantic delight, and the hook wouldn’t sound at all out of place on a Martin Gore-sung Depeche Mode song from the close of the decade. The spacey, vocal-imitating synths in the bridge also rather recall Depeche Mode, but it doesn’t feel like an imitation so much as a respectful acknowledgement of the ground paved by masters of past eras, and the melodies are all just delightful. And lest we forget, of course, the soft, harp-based post-chorus closes out with a totally unexpected, perfectly-produced echoing scream that’d make any metalhead proud. This song presaged the synthpop revival by a fair few years, but it got closer to the core of what made synthpop work than most of those new guys ever could.

That’s the sort of talent that makes Gaga so deeply frustrating. On the one hand, of the current crop of stars, only she could have made a song that indicated so deep an understanding of the strengths of synthpop while maintaining an identity of its own; on the other hand, only she could ever make a song that so completely captures all the things that made 80s hair-rock so insufferable as she does on “Bad Kids”. I give her respect for correctly capturing the essences of both the two powerhouses of 80s popular music, I guess, and I suppose it’s is undeniably far better than most of the faux-rebellious guitarshit that ruled the latter end of that decade, but the riff is irritating and far too cleanly produced, the melody is on the lower end of Gaga melodies (which is to say, pretty good but not good enough to redeem the surrounding production) and the hook, while fine on its own terms, doesn’t blend at all with its surroundings. It’s a song that ends up rather worse than the sum of its parts, not at all helped by some of the most moronic lyrics she ever wrote. “I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it/ Pump your fist if you would rather mess up than put up with this/ I’m a nerd, I chew gum and smoke in your face, I’m absurd”… man, is this Axl Rose or have we descended ten years downhill to Fred Durst by accident? It’s not a disaster of a song, all told, but it’s not a good one either, and I’m not sure why it had to exist.

Poorly-applied influences are responsible for a good many of the worst songs on this album, and there are a few of those. “Americano” is such a ridiculously superficial, pantomime-tier application of Latin influences to electropop that it pretty much loops round, and I can rarely restrain myself from at least chuckling a little when I hear it. I mean, come on – that chorus is so offensive it’s nearly racist! It’s incredibly catchy, of course, because it’s still a Gaga chorus, but it feels like the Latino equivalent of blackface. I can’t help but get the impression this song is based more on stereotypes about Latin music than real experience with it, though I run the risk of hypocrisy there since I’m far from an expert on Latin pop myself. Maybe the real problem is that it’s too overblown and over-the-top, even for Gaga, to sound capable of seriously delivering any actual emotion whatsoever except unintentional comedy, and it’s certainly not alone in that flaw. “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” pretty much exactly lives down to its ridiculous title, sounding rather like the electropop version of the sort of shitty power metal that resides at the toxic bottom of all the world’s musical wells, simply too vast to not collapse under its own excessive weight. “Hair” alternates between saccharine power ballad, pounding electropop banger and stupid arena pomp, burying what should, melodically, be a reasonably triumphant, decently developed hook under so many loudly exuberant instruments it becomes difficult to even make it out. The terribly-played saxophone deserves special mention, though it’s mercifully difficult to make out from the general idiotic cacophony it contributes to.

Nah, Gaga is at her best when she streamlines her influences a little better, like she does on “Scheiße”. Putting aside how weird it is that a tribute to European techno music exists on the same album as so many tributes to American hair metal, it’s a good song because it’s so simple and unpretentious in its application of this influence. It just shoves a rumbly, dark techno beat into a pop song structure, throws some of Gaga’s trademark great vocal melodies over the top, adds some of Gaga’s also-trademark silly spoken word stuff as a refrain (a bunch of completely fake German, amusing enough to avoid being annoying) and then lets it climax with one of Gaga’s also-also-trademark soaring-but-also-kinda-deeply-sad hooks. There’s a brief house-y moment of super clean, spacey synths in the prechorus that widens the scope just enough to add the sort of epic touch Gaga loves without feeling ridiculous or tacked-on, and it all adds up to a song I’ve absolutely no complaints with. It’s something of a crime that it was never officially released as a single, and evidently the buying public agreed – it charted in at least five countries anyway.

Those hair metal tributes I mentioned do get a little grating, though. “Electric Chapel” quietly contains one of the loveliest vocal melodies and hooks on the album, sung beautifully by Gaga in full soft-velvet-angel mode, but those 80s guitars do their best to ruin it whenever they reappear, playing the sort of dullard riff I’m sure Richie Sambora would be proud to have come up with. “Heavy Metal Lover”, meanwhile, doesn’t have much to do musically with any kind of metal, but it seems the mere presence of metal in Gaga’s mindset as she wrote it ruined it – the song isn’t so much underwritten as mostly not written at all, without anything in the way of a verse melody or memorable instrumental riff. The hook does contain a really lovely, quiet and reflective millennial whoop (millennial hum?) that rather recalls the one on “Alejandro” and which I’ve caught humming to myself more times than I can count, and a similarly lovely (if VERY brief) bridge, but it’s not enough to salvage a song that feels like it was bashed out in about five minutes. Who’d want a metalhead for a lover, anyway? Do those fuckin’ nerds seem like they know anything about pleasing a woman? Oh, bah, I can’t talk…

There’s one song here, though, which should embody everything I hate most about Gaga’s love for hair metal and yet somehow doesn’t. “Yoü and I” is laden with big dumb hair metal guitars, big dumb drums (cribbed directly from Queen, no less) and big dumb lyrical references to Bruce Springsteen, but it’s all forgivable because its primary driving force is one of the absolute loveliest, prettiest and most affecting vocal melodies Gaga ever wrote in her life. Strip away all the stupid production and what you’ve got isn’t a power ballad – it’s a slow, quiet, contemplative normal ballad that’d fit just perfectly on a lone acoustic guitar or piano, save perhaps for the big anthemic bridge and its accompanying guitar solo (contributed by Brian May himself, no less!). The hook refuses to build any power or invite any singing along – if anything, it’s the softest part of the song, a firm retreat into the deepest recesses of her heart. It’s very pretty indeed, and the guitars don’t sound quite clean or irritating enough to distract. One of the unlikeliest success stories on the album, for sure, but I love it.

That all brings us to the album’s closing track. And oh, man… what a closing track, man. “The Edge of Glory” is ridiculous, overblown, pompous, arrogant, arena-ready, and simply one of the best damn pop songs of the last thirty-odd years, and I won’t hear a damn word against it except to criticise that stupid bloody saxophone solo that tries its best to ruin it. It doesn’t manage it, though, because it’s impossible to ruin a collection of melodies and hooks this completely efficient, dense, sweeping and cathartic. The verse melodies here are the cleanest and most perfectly-constructed she’s written since “Just Dance”, packing so much catchy melodic content into each second that it’s impossible to forget any of it, and the refrains spliced in between – “Toniiight, yeah, baby!” – are perfect mini-hooks, grabbing and forcing your attention and not letting you leave until you’ve taken the whole thing in, filling you with melodic purity like an elixir. The hook, meanwhile, from the start of the prechorus to the end of the chorus itself, is among the most perfect examples of buildup and catharsis I’ve ever encountered in a pop song, pacing itself absolutely perfectly as it steadily rises to the orgasmic climax. That last climb – “the edge, the edge, the eeeeeeeeeeeedge!” – is absolutely ecstatic, and one of the very truest moments of pure energetic catharsis anywhere in my music collection. Sax solo aside, it may very well be Gaga’s finest five minutes, and its mere presence on this album raises this album’s score by 0.5. I can listen to this song four times in a row and it’ll give me goosebumps every time. If you wanna make a ridiculously overblown, over-the-top arena song, take notes, cos this is exactly how you do it.

So, man – is this a good record? Well, hmm… depends on my mood for the day. About seven of the songs are outright good, and seven of them are on various levels below that. Logically that should be a dreaded Five Out Of Ten score, but even the bad songs are mostly very catchy in a way that doesn’t usually feel obnoxious, so that wouldn’t be fair. There’s also the fact that all this album’s flaws are, at least, interesting – there isn’t a single dull moment on the entire album, and it’s certainly packed full to the brim with ideas, even if a lot of them aren’t very good. Certainly, if you’re gonna erect a towering edifice to your own musical ego, I’d much rather you do it this way – throwing things in all directions to see what sticks – rather than, say, making an 80-minute rock opera on which half the songs sound the bloody same. (Heh.)

Could this album have been much better? Oh, of course. If Gaga had shaved about twenty minutes off this album, cut off a few of the more horrid guitar riffs and filled out a few of the synth productions a little more, she might have been able to create one of the best pop albums of all time. But she didn’t, and in the end I’m just gonna have to settle for a maddeningly inconsistent album on which the worst songs are nonetheless not nearly as bad as the best songs are good. Man, I love reviewing Gaga, you know that? Consistent artists can be so monotonous to review, but Gaga, man, she keeps me fuckin’ guessing. The more flaws I discover, the more I love her. What the fuck are perfect places, anyway?

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Author: Graham Warnken

I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me. Or you could just, y’know, load another webpage.

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