By John Short
By Michael Strait
I believe this is what the young’uns refer to as a “glo-up”.
Alright, so it’s at this point that I start to sort of understand why so many people insist on calling Bobbie Gentry a country artist. I guess this is a country record, even if it only feels like it arrived there by combining folk, blues and soul in a way that sort of ended up accidentally resembling country music. There’s still lots of souly horn arrangements and folky string arrangements, and the songs are still mostly written like blues or folk songs, but the funny thing about hearing them in this context is you kinda start to realise that country music is basically just what you get when you combine blues and folk anyway. The end result, then, is a highly idiosyncratic record, and it also happens to be an utterly brilliant one.
It’s barely four minutes longer than the last one, but it’s an order of magnitude better, and I already liked that one a lot. Just about all the flaws in Ode to Billie Joe could be traced back to its rushed nature, and that constraint wasn’t present here. So, what you’re left with is a selection of twelve distinct, unique, excellently-written songs, all so tremendously rewarding that I really have no idea which track I’d pick as my favourite. Actually, I don’t really know that I could pick a least favourite track, either, which really is an exquisitely unusual achievement.
If there’s one trait this album shares with its predecessor, it’s that it’s split roughly evenly between folk songs and bluesier stuff. Most of the bluesier stuff here resides on the first half, and that includes the opening track, “Okolona River Bottom Band”, which is something of an immediate mission statement. That reserved, growling guitar riff, melding so perfectly with those blaring horns, almost gives one the impression of ominous danger before Bobbie comes in with a few “la-la-la”s and makes it clear that the song is, in fact, mostly an excellent farce. The vocal melody might be described as mock-serious, and she throws in this glorious recording of some old Southern man cackling like a lunatic at a couple of points to make it extra clear that there’s nothing particularly worrisome going on here. She has a lot of fun with her silly rhymes in the chorus, backing herself up with what are either backing vocalists or multiple tracks of her own voice to create a sense of overriding mirth. Thinking about it, I actually can’t think of many songs that pull that off – I can think of plenty of comedy songs, sure, but songs that successfully give the impression of participating in a hilarious, raucously fun communal event, bringing you right into the fun and allowing you to have a good time along with them? That’s more difficult than you’d think. The song is ridiculously catchy, layered, and – as usual for Bobbie – totally unique. On most albums, it’d be an easy favourite, but here I’m not so sure.
Of the remaining bluesy tracks, two of them are Bobbie originals. “Sermon”, the last track on what would have been the A-side back in the horrid days when vinyl was the only option, is sung remarkably quietly for being so fast-paced, as if to show reverence for the sermon she’s relaying the details of, with horns and distant choirs of backing vocalists heralding the message. I always thought it seemed a little bit like she was quietly mocking the preacher, too – “You may run on for a long time”, she repeats, ostensibly quoting him but also perhaps making fun of his long-windedness – but for the most part it doesn’t appear that she’s making much commentary on the message; she’s presenting it without comment, a slice of her life growing up in Mississippi, not to mention using it as an opportunity to deliver some of her usual beautifully-written lyrics. “Great God Almighty, let me tell you my need/ Yes, my head’s been wet with the midnight deed/ I been down on my bended knee/ Talkin’ to the man from Galilee”. I’m doubtful that the preacher used precisely those words, but I expect Bobbie’s version is an improvement.
The other one, “Reunion”, is one of the most unique creations in Bobbie’s mostly-unique catalogue, and certainly the song you’re most likely to remember the first time you listen to the album. It’s remarkably ambitious for such a profoundly silly song, seeking to sonically recreate both the physical and emotional atmosphere of an extended family gathering, piling Bobbie’s silly lyrics (“Mama make Willie quit pulling at my hair!/ Mama ouch! ouch! mama, just make Willie quit it!”) atop a choir of children singing dinner table gossip as if it were angelic verse and then interjecting the rhythmic spoken-word rhymes of an old Southern dad, or perhaps uncle, giving lackadaisical orders and making easy boasts of the sort that flow easily when there’s plentiful food. It should be an absolute mess, but instead it’s an absolute joy, and it brings a smile to my face every time. It’s not got anything resembling the usual pop song structure, because how could it? It’s very catchy, though, and I’ve had the uncle’s lines stuck in my head for weeks now. “I told you, my mama didn’t raise no fool – I can do anything if I got the right tools!” (If you listen closely, you’ll notice one of the things the choir sings about is the suicide of Billie Joe at the Tallahatchie Bridge. Bobbie was building a whole-ass shared universe before it was cool.)
The remaining bluesy songs are all covers, and every one of them is way better than “Niki Hoeky” off her last record. I actually prefer her version of “Big Boss Man” to Jimmy Reed’s, mostly because I love the quietly contemptuous way she sings it, not to mention the extra context that’s injected by those same lyrics coming from the mouth of a clearly-seething woman rather than a sardonic, depressed man. The energetic guitar riffing helps convey the unhappiness, and I love the sections where all the instruments drop except for the bass, rumbling under her nearly-whispered words of suppressed anger. There’s a similar current running under “Parchman Farm”, which is Gentry’s version of Mose Allison’s cover of Bukka White’s incredible original (linked here for the curious only, as it has little in common with either Mose’s or Bobbie’s versions). Bobbie sings it slowly and deliberately, never raising her voice and choosing to switch the perspective to third person, giving the unmistakable impression of judgement as she sings with sardonic contempt. One is unsure why, exactly, she’s being so implicitly judgemental until you reach the end, when she finally unveils the song’s famous plot twist: “Well he’s gonna be there for the rest of his life/ and all he ever did was shoot his wife”. No surprise, I guess, that a woman might see something markedly less relatable in a song about a domestic murderer proclaiming that he’s never done anything wrong, and I take the light, airy strings that come in after the conclusion of the tale as signifying happiness at justice done fairly and right.
“Tobacco Road”, meanwhile, is a song she probably knew from The Nashville Teens’ 1964 version. My favourite version of the song is probably the original, but they’re all great, and Bobbie’s is no exception. I love the way she alternates between the hard, bluesy riffing and the lush folk arrangements as she sings the brutally matter-of-fact lyrics, as if to contrast the harsh reality of deep Southern poverty with the lushness and beauty of the natural environment that surrounds it. The last of the covers is the only one that was, originally, a true-blue country song, and while I like the original just fine I must confess I’m a much bigger fan of Bobbie’s version. She conveys what sounds like genuine excitement when relaying the tale of life on the bayou, and the various extra instrumental arrangements that flourish up behind her really flesh out the picture. It’s really good fun, and a sadly rare example of totally non-toxic working class Southern pride, with no ties to any confederate nostalgia or even so much as a hint of any rebel imagery.
Even the shortest track on this album feels fully fleshed-out. “Penduli Pendulum” doesn’t break two minutes (despite the protestations of both RYM and Wikipedia, which incorrectly record the track length as nearly three minutes), but it’s got one of the catchiest melodies of the whole bunch, and the way the strings steadily build up to swirl around her voice as she sings on is just gorgeous. It’s not a particularly complex song, but it doesn’t feel like it’s lacking anything at all, and I didn’t even notice it was so short until I looked at the track listing. I’m not entirely sure what the lyrics mean, but they’re very pretty, and I love listening to her sing them. That voice is still gorgeous and unique in its faintly harsh warmth, and it fits the music like a glove.
It’s not the best folk song here, but it’s certainly not the worst – although, again, I’m not sure there even is a worst. They’re all so good! “Mornin’ Glory” is a deeply pleasant three-minute love song, containing no complicated message and no huge, attention-grabbing hook because it just doesn’t need either; it simply exists in a glowing state of loveliness, casting light and heat on all around it, sounding like the musical equivalent of reflections in a placid pool as the sun rises. “Jessye’ Lizabeth” is similarly placid, although not quite so warm; it’s a much more baroque folk song, evoking old England more than the American South, even as the lyrics remain an expression of devotional love (this time to our narrator’s little daughter). But it’s just as lovely to listen to, chiefly because the melody, for all its baroque, glacial slowness, is well-constructed enough to pop back into one’s head whenever one wishes it to, even as it deftly avoids getting stuck there and becoming irritating.
If held at gunpoint and forced to choose, I guess I’d probably pick “Refractions” as my favourite folk song here, though it’d hurt to feel like I was disrespecting the others. It’s also a little baroque and ancient-sounding, but the melody is truly, totally gorgeous, all soft and bright and huge in scope. It melds with the strings perfectly as it climbs and circulates to climax in each verse, sounding as crystalline as the bird she describes in the beautifully abstract lyrics – lyrics which are certainly some of the most gorgeous on the album, even if I’m not sure that they mean anything particularly deep. It’s a gorgeous ray of light masquerading as a song, and it truly baffles me that the woman who made it isn’t more widely celebrated.
Finally, we come to our lovely closer, “Courtyard”, which has the honor of containing my favourite lyrics on an album where almost all the songs have great lyrics. The song itself is slow, light and gorgeous, gliding softly along like mist as she sings longingly and lovingly of the tragic, love-resembling illusions in which she has trapped herself. The final couplet contains vastly more depth than most artists are able to squeeze out of entire songs. “Patterns on a courtyard floor/ Illusions of all I’m living for”, she sings acapella, the music having trailed off and left her sitting there alone, awaiting fulfillment that will never come. It’s a bit of a downer ending, considering the various mixed emotions one can find elsewhere on the album, but it’s beautiful all the same, and certainly deeply pleasant on the ears.
Looking back, I’m amazed at all the stylistic variety, emotional depth, and musical creativity she was able to squeeze into these thirty-three minutes. This is a highly efficient album, without so much as a wasted minute and lacking anything I can immediately pinpoint as a flaw. It’s an album that knows how to have fun without being embarrassing, knows how to be ambitious without being pretentious, and knows how to be heartfelt without being corny. It’s an expertly-made, remarkably perfect piece of art, and it’s a tremendous injustice that it isn’t given more credit as such. It’s unique enough that no genre gatekeepers really feel like claiming it for their canons, except for country music, which has such a frankly overpopulated canon that it can be easy to miss Bobbie in there. I can’t remember how I discovered her, but I’m very glad I did. Now y’all can too. Do yourself a favour and listen to one of the best albums of the late sixties. You deserve it, I promise.
By John Short
The very first Syd Barrett solo album, The Madcap Laughs is generally considered to be the best Syd solo outing, and while I may not entirely agree with that verdict, i will concede that it is almost certainly the most honest. Continue reading “Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs (1970)”
By John Short
Syd Barrett’s solo career has always weirded me out a little bit. Don’t get me wrong there’s some fantastic stuff there, but on the whole there’s just something about these albums that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I suspect most of this is simply a gut reaction to the cult that rose up around Syd in the decades following his retirement from music in 1972, which i have always found a disgusting romanticization of the suffering of a deeply talented, but troubled and sick man whose life was essentially ruined by a terrible disease. Because of this, i’ve always grappled between my enjoyment of Syd’s two completed solo albums and the feeling that there is something deeply voyeuristic and invasive about them. Ultimately, if you want to be a fan of Syd Barrett, you should listen to Piper at the Gates of Dawn, when he was healthy and in his right mind, rather than the sad little footnotes that his solo albums are when placed next to that 1967 masterwork.
With that said, Barrett’s solo career is endlessly fascinating to me, and always has been. While Syd was quite damaged mentally by the time he began his solo career, he was still remarkably talented and neither Madcap Laughs nor Barrett are anywhere near as unlistenable as common wisdom would have you believe. Several of the singles from these albums could probably have been hits if they had been arranged differently or promoted more effectively, and it’s easy to see how these records amassed the cult following they enjoy to this day. I’ll end this intro with the warning that although both Barrett solo albums were released in the same year, they are as different as night and day, and enjoying one is no guarantee that you will like the other. Syd’s solo records frequently make for a depressing and sometimes unsettling listen, but in spite (or perhaps because) of this, he has probably the best solo career of any of the members of Pink Floyd, and at the end of the day I have to respect that.
I’m gonna get this right out of the way: if what bothers you about country music is that it’s whiny, this album won’t do much to swing you. But then again, if that’s your problem with country music, fuck you! Misery is one of the great topics of popular music, and the pages of history are littered with miserablist geniuses I’m willing to bet most of y’all just absolutely adore. If you’re into Cobain, Yorke, Morrissey, Reznor, Staley, Curtis, Waters or any of the countless other depressed rock heroes I’ve forgotten to mention, then you should have no problem whatsoever with Sarah Shook here. And while I’m not about to start officiating any sort of suffering olympics, I will say that Shook’s got a lot more to whine about here than Morrissey ever did.
There are, I think, two very important anchors on this record, and the first is the opener. “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'” is a gorgeous, fast-paced ballad, centered around a very pretty jangly guitar and slide-whistling steel guitars, and at first glance it appears to be just another (very good) country ballad about missing an absent lover. Listen closer, though, and you hear an edge of terror in the lyrics, helped along by that trademark harsh warble in her voice. “I’ve got the fires burnin’ way down low/ Oh, come home to me”, she begs desperately, and you can tell that this is more than just mindless submissive devotion. “Oh, I move the days along, workin’ my fingers to the bone”, she laments, hinting at just how much is at stake in this poverty-stricken world, but it’s only on the following songs that the gravity of this relationship really becomes clear.
Sarah Shook, you see, is a woman who has very much experienced enough love to know how pain feels, and she’s witnessed enough dysfunctional relationships and painful collapses to know the deep, profound importance of holding onto something good while she’s got it. She takes some pleasure in excoriating a deadbeat boyfriend on “The Nail”, and the music plays along with that stomping beat and the satisfyingly percussive transition into the chorus, but there’s no real catharsis – just a list of unfixable grievances, piling up on each other as the two of them gather spite and grow further distant from each other. “Well I ain’t your last and you ain’t my first/ Can’t decide which fact is worse”, she sings, landing somewhere between sardonic and despondent as she contemplates the endlessness of this cycle of misery. The end is near, she knows, but she can’t finish it yet, and all there is to do in the meantime is channel her energy into loathing.
She fixates on his drunkenness – “You’re never, ever home and when you are/ What was once a happy home becomes a bar” – before descending into it herself on the very next song, seeking refuge from his damage in the very architect of their misery. She’s fully aware of the futility – “There’s a hole in my heart ain’t nothin’ here can fill/ But I just keep thinkin’ surely the whiskey will” – but she has no answer; she just keeps drinking, trying to drown misery under misery. The melody she sings is as mournful as it gets, and the angry guitar solos bring no relief from the despair. This is music about personal failure, and the pain goes deep.
The only break she takes from the intimate, personal miseries that define the album as a whole is the song “No Name”, a rough, comparatively fast-paced rockish tour through the wider misery that defines American history. “I’ve killed more living souls than the Devil can claim/ And I’ll kill a thousand more because I have no name”, she sings, rugged and forceful; I’ve yet to work out exactly what it is she’s describing, but I know it sounds entirely fitting for a nation with roots as bloody as this one. Elsewhere, though, it’s all part of the same tapestry: decaying, dying relationships segue into endless drinking, which in turn metamorphose inevitably into fierce, vicious self-loathing. “Dwight Yoakam” manages to fuse all three into a tragic swirl of misery, as she tries vainly to drown all the insecurities bubbling up inside her at the collapse of her latest relationship. “He don’t walk around like he’s broken/ And he siiiings just like Dwight Yoooaakam“, she sobs, drawing that last line into a desperate plea to nobody in particular as she describes her erstwhile girlfriend’s new flame, trying to cope with the fact that her very depression has robbed her of the one thing that made it bearable. So she turns, again, to the drink, digging the hole deeper and spiralling down into the void.
Some of the most deeply depressing songs I’ve ever heard reside on the second half of this record, to the point where I sometimes feel a little weirdly voyeuristic about enjoying them. “Misery Without Company” is as black a portrait of hopelessness as you’ll ever find in any genre, rolling pure existential despair at the ravages of fate into the helplessness of substance addiction and creating a postcard from hell itself. “This old world ain’t been kind to me/ And no matter how I try I can’t seem to change my stars”, she reflects, showcasing her talent for rueful poetic flair before descending into that tragic denial we all recognise and fear: “I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ But for now, the only thing keepin’ my chin up is this bottle.” The blackened melody and the wizened cracks in her voice all contribute to the general fog, and any semblance of a light at the end disappears. This blackness is everlasting, and those desperate wails in the final iteration of the chorus seem destined to echo into the emptiness forever, drawing no relief.
The three-song stretch from “Solitary Confinement” onwards is a particularly hellish journey. What begins as an attempt to recover from the particularly cutting pain of being cast aside like a toy – complete with a particularly depressing, bleakly catchy melodic downturn in the chorus, as she finally, inevitably returns to the bottle she can never escape – turns, on “Nothin’ Feels Right but Doin’ Wrong”, into an uncontrollable descent into a horrid routine in which all emotions become dissatisfying except the cheap thrills of sin and self-degradation, until eventually even they become so regular and predictable that she loses all capacity for real feeling. This all comes to a head on “Fuck Up”, which may very possibly be the most total slice of absolute misery and despair in my entire music library. “I can’t cry myself to sleep, so I drink myself to death/ I’ve got cocaine in my bloodstream and whiskey on my breath”, she sings forlornly, by now buried so far in the blackness that she can’t imagine light. Musically, the song is a fairly standard downbeat country ballad, but her utterly broken vocals and hopelessly despairing lyrics place it in among the bleakest things I’ve ever heard. “Ain’t a thing that I can change to get my luck up/ God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck ups”, she spits bitterly, rolling self-loathing and despair at the fickleness of fate into a concentrated beam of blackened misery.
This is what makes the other anchor on this record so important. The closer, “Road That Leads To You”, is one of only two expressions of genuine love on the album, and forms a very necessary bookend with “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'”, combining to light a candle in the impossible blackness and provide a ray of flickering hope. She doesn’t go into much detail about her lover, but she doesn’t need to – at this point, the fact that the love is real and purposeful is all it needs. And it’s at this point that the opening song really starts to make sense, and you really start to understand what it means.
She needs her lover to return from the north country, and she needs it because she knows the monsters that await her in the dark when she’s alone. She needs them to return, because she needs the relationship to remain real and genuine – because she knows what happens when it ends, and she deeply dreads what happens when it ends badly. She keeps the fires burnin’ low, not for her lover, but for her -because she there is nothing in the universe she needs more than that hope, and there is nothing she will ever cling to harder than that desperate lifeline. She can feel the blackness gnawing at the edges, and it terrifies her. The bleak loneliness of the bottle is waiting to consume her if she lets go, and she knows how cold it gets in the deep. So she resolutely keeps the fires burning, doing what she can to stave off the despair. She knows it well enough to know that she can’t let it claim her again.
And if that ain’t country, well, boys, you can kiss my ass. – Hank Williams III
Bleh. What a waste.
(No, I’m not reviewing Cheek to Cheek. Sod off.)
If this album proves one thing, it’s that I was wrong to suspect that Gaga’s reservoir of raw melodic talent had emptied entirely. Naw, she’s still got it, and it’s actually present on this album in abundance. I dunno where it went on Artpop, but it’s back now, and most of the songs on this album centre around at least one pretty memorable tune. So, that’s a good thing, right? All is not lost?
Mmmm… nah. Gaga’s talent for writing catchy melodies is most certainly back, but it’s been misapplied. All those dense, clever tunes she used to write, with their lovely development and evolving structure, are gone, and what we’ve got here instead is a big ol’ pile of vast, soaring arena music. Just about every hook on here is huge, slow, ponderous and spacey, and it’s all delivered with so much uncontrolled vocal power that it often starts to become a little grating after a while. Take the opener, for example: a perfectly competent, entirely decent piece of soft faux-indie arena pop-rock sung as if it were some sort of U2 ballad about Martin Luther King, developing as predictably as anything you can imagine from its plaintive verses to its big ol’ drawn-out-syllables hook. It’s perfectly enjoyable if you’re in the mood, but it’s rather tragically typical, sounding like just the sort of dime-a-dozen landfill indie that’s been filling middle class nerdy-white-girl playlists since the turn of the decade. I kinda like the sheer melodrama of the bridge, I guess, but I could see it coming from a mile away. I like Gaga best when she keeps me guessing, and there ain’t a single moment of that on this album.
If anything, the most baffling thing about this album is the general consensus among the uninformed that it can be considered “country”, presumably something to do with all the acoustic guitars and that big pink hat on the cover. There’s nothing country about it at all, of course, with the possible exception of “Sinner’s Prayer”, which at least has some vague ghost of the twangy warmth one can usually find in the best country. The fingerpicked guitar style is still more folk, though, and the actual songwriting is mostly just the same as the rest of the acoustic tracks on this album: ballad-pop, genreless and formless except in the most general possible sense, the sort of music recorded just as easily by Adele or Keane as by Lady Antebellum. It’s a little better than most of that dreck, ‘cos Gaga is still a better melodist than most, but the melodies just aren’t interesting anymore, you know? Like, nobody could deny that “Million Reasons” is extremely catchy, but it’s just so much dumber than her catchy songs used to be. The hook is vast, soaring, huge, sweeping, etc. etc., and impossible to forget the moment you first hear it – but it’s not clever. It’s the sound of a supremely talented melodist operating on autopilot, defaulting to the path of least resistence and creating the only song in her entire career I’d be willing to call completely generic.
The sentiments get pretty generic, too. Gaga’s never been a good lyricist, but the first verse on “Come to Mama” may be the most offensive thing she’s ever written, dipping far below her usual levels and dragging us to the dread realms of white savior-pop. “Everybody’s got to love each other/ Stop throwin’ stones at your sisters and your brothers/ Man, it wasn’t that long ago we were all living in the jungle/ So why do we gotta put each other down/ When there’s more than enough love to g-g-go around?”, she simpers, doing her best to ruin what little goodwill may be conferred by the perfunctory funk brass-band arrangements one finds elsewhere in the song. “Hey Girl” is a duet with eternal wailer Florence, fresh from The Machine, and it’s a meeting of two such unstoppable freight-train voices that it’s actually almost likeable until you hit the dimestore feminism lyrics. “Angel Down”, meanwhile, closes the album out on perhaps the most trite note possible, with Gaga donning her – gulp – political hat, letting loose with a string of such rancid clichés that I nearly vomit every time I hear it. “I’m a believer, it’s chaos/ Where are our leaders? Oh, oh, oh!” she sings pathetically, doing her very best Whitney Houston impression in the worst possible way. All these songs have incredibly, ridiculously catchy arena-pop hooks that I can easily imagine anybody singing along to at a live show, but they’re all basically the same as each other and none of them have an ounce of intelligence anywhere in their bodies. The only little acoustic ballad on the whole album I properly like is the title track, which drops all the lyrical pretense in favour of a simple lament for one of Gaga’s long-dead relations and does nothing to ruin the fairly pleasant melody and fingerpicking that accompany it. It’s quite lovely, but it’s not exactly one of her best tracks, and she’s hardly the best to ever do this kind of music. Still, at least she’s better at it than Mumford & Sons, eh?
The other songs on this record – and we’ve blown through more than half of them already – have various ideas that set them apart from this grey mess, but not all of them are good ones. “Dancin’ in Circles” is, once again, catchy as anything, but it’s also very much a superficial imitation of the absolute most basic possible surface traits of reggae or ska music, lacking any sort of groove or funk to match its lyrics (“Tap down those boots while I beat around/Let’s funk downtown”). “Perfect Illusion” is this weird, ridiculously oversung glam rock pastiche, saddled with the absolute dumbest verse melody on the album (which is seriously saying a lot) and laden with a totally, hilariously unearned key change that brings to mind the worst excesses of Eurovision idiot-pop. I can, in the right frame of mind, just about enjoy most of the tracks on this album on some base level, but “Perfect Illusion” really is total shit, and I can’t recall a single moment where I ever enjoyed any of it. Gaga’s made a lot of bad songs, but this seriously might be her worst. And it was the lead single! See what I mean about bad ideas?
The remaining two songs are the only ones that come close to displaying the level of talent I know Gaga is capable of, and it’s really only a dim reflection. “A-YO” is classified as “country-pop” by the idiots over on Wikipedia, but it’s really more of an indie pop song with perhaps vague, ill-defined influences from a nebulously distant era of American popular music, sounding not really much like country, rock ‘n’ roll or r’n’b but kind of like someone heard all those styles described to them by a millennial who’d read about them on George Starostin’s old page and decided to make a song based on that information. It’s dancey, catchy and fun, even if Gaga’s oversinging gets grating, and I can’t deny that the end result of this pastiche is something kinda unique among the pop radio hits of the day. “John Wayne”, meanwhile, is the closest thing you’ll find to Gaga’s old bop style on the album, and it might be one of the better tracks on Artpop if you just replaced all the live instruments with expensive synths. The rock influence is vague enough to, once again, accidentally create something a little unique, not quite rock enough to be called pop-rock but with enough ghosts of rock attitude to make the whole thing sound a little more hard-edged than usual. It’s still not perfect – the hook feels a little lazy, what with those little wordless, distorted vocals taking the place of Gaga’s usual well-developed melodies – but it’s at least kind of a successful banger with a nice build in the prechorus, which is a trick one might almost have thought Gaga had forgotten entirely if one judged by the other tracks on the album.
And, uh… that’s it. Man, what a disappointment, huh? I can’t rate this too low, ‘cos every song on here really is very catchy, but this is an album that feels very much as if Gaga is suppressing herself in pursuit of some great social ideal she has no business pursuing. The idea that acoustic ballads are the definition of authenticity is, of course, a silly one, and I’d actually say this feels like possibly the least authentic Gaga record yet, save maybe for the lowest nadirs on The Fame. Trying to slot any of these tracks onto best-of-Gaga playlists is a bizarrely futile endeavor, not just because the instrumentation is so different from her usual but because the melodic style seems almost like that of another artist, moonlighting under the Gaga name but not really representing her soul. The cover, at least, is great – probably the best Gaga album cover ever, actually, at least so far – but, alas, that’s the only hyperbole I can heap upon this album, which isn’t even interesting enough to claim the coveted title of worst Gaga album. Man, is there anything more depressing than the sight of an interesting artist making an uninteresting album? Well, I dunno, maybe…
Well, I guess it couldn’t last forever. After two straight albums of seemingly endless melodic inspiration, it was bound to happen that she’d screech to a halt eventually. I’ve been known to theorize that talent is more like a finite resource than an innate trait, bound to run out eventually if you mine it for long enough, and this point in Gaga’s career gives me some worrisome evidence in support of this hypothesis. This album’s got a whole lot of faults, but the most powerful and important, and the one that ultimately sours it most of all, is that Gaga appears, at least temporarily, to have gotten near the bottom of her vein of outstanding melodies. The stuff she’s dredging up here is mostly passable at best, fool’s gold more than the real thing, and it’s a tragic thing to hear.
It’s a problem she seems to recognise on at least some subconscious level, because there’s a lot of superfluous shit here that seems specifically made to distract from the lacklustre tunes. The first track is especially instructive; it’s a ridiculous hodgepodge of all sorts of ideas shoved brutally together into a single misshapen package, bursting at the seams and falling apart as it struggles to present a coherent facade of musical creativity. There’s a bit of spaghetti western-style acoustic guitar in the intro, a lot of ridiculous pop-EDM synths and buildups, some English-accented spoken word shit, and a whole host of distinct, loosely-structured musical segments that ultimately serve only to distract from the fact that there really isn’t all that much melodic content present outside of the hook. The hook melody itself is pretty promising, but it’s backed up by some very confused synths that build up to the verses as if they’re the song’s real climax – only for the verses themselves to start over and try and build up energy again. There’s never a satisfactory resolution to all that building energy, and it leaves you feeling rather disappointed and dissatisfied, ending on an abrupt note that takes you right into one of the worst songs Gaga ever made.
Remember how “LoveGame” felt like Gaga was very much going for camp over quality? Well, this isn’t quite as bad as “LoveGame”, but it’s very close, and that’s largely because it commits the same dreadful sin. Right from the opening lyric – “Rocket number nine, take off to the planet… Venus!” – it’s clear that this is a song far more concerned with being as silly as possible than it is with actually being any good, and it successfully achieves a level of silly awfulness I find absolutely intolerable. The verses are only melodic in the most technical sense, and neither the production nor the lyrics are good enough to provide any alternative point of interest. The whole thing is structured in much the same way as one of those pop-EDM tracks that was popular on the radio at the time, with a big rhythmic buildup to a dumb, dramatic drop serving as a hook, and the melodies Gaga lays over the top aren’t good enough to salvage the song from sounding uncomfortably mawkish. The spoken word bridge, meanwhile, may be the absolute nadir of any such Gaga bridge, consisting of almost nothing but a “Uranus” joke so bad it may have ruined all such jokes for me forevermore. See what you’ve done, Gaga? You’ve only gone and murdered my inner child!
The pop-EDM era to which much of this album’s production belongs lasted, I dunno, maybe four years at most, and in retrospect its influence on this album is a little too big to justify. “Swine” is the track most victimized by this issue, but it’s hard to feel any sympathy for it, since it’s not like it ever had much potential anyway. The prechorus has some decent melodic content, but for the most part the song’s a big, forgettable, overblown mess that all serves as a buildup to a big ol’ generic EDM drop of the type one can almost imagine the late Avicii creating, and that, loath as I generally am to speak ill of the recently deceased, is not a good thing. It’s rather grotesque to see such a singular artist so nakedly pandering to such momentary pop trends, especially on an album conceived and marketed as her craziest, most exploratory artistic period. Barely four years removed from the glory days of DJ Snake, and this stuff already sounds uncomfortable in the same “what the fuck were we thinking?” way as hair metal. It should have passed us by without infecting any of our major artists, but alas, it ensnared Gaga, and we’re forced to put up with shit like this and “Fashion!”.
“Fashion!” is some sickening shit, man. Strip away all that fashion plating – disco guitars and basslines, expensive synths – and you’re left with a hook that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Imagine Dragons’ most nauseating anthems melded with a bridge that doubles as a horrid EDM buildup-and-drop, adding nothing to the song except a vaguely irritating sense that it’s somehow managing to be both over and underambitious at the same time. Listening to it gets me really down, but not quite as much as the immediately preceding “Donatella”, another moment of ridiculous overcampensation that seeks to replace melodic invention with exuberance. “I am so fab“, she proclaims as the song opens, presumably trying, in some way, to imitate the titular Ms. Versace and doing a great disservice to all involved. The hook here is nothing but a pathetic, underwritten anticlimax, and the perfunctory trancey synths that inhabit the treble end of this song’s range really get on my nerves. If these two songs aren’t enough to convince you to ban the entire field of high fashion and exterminate all its practitioners, you may be a lost cause.
When Gaga’s neither burying herself in camp nor pretending to be David Guetta, she’s writing songs so boring I find it difficult to say anything about them at all. “MANiCURE” is the sort of song title that should belong to RiFF RAFF more than Gaga, and that’s about the most interesting insight I have to offer on the song, which is so bland and unremarkable that I can’t really remember anything about it beyond the presence of some token guitars. The title track is so listless and lazily written that it feels almost like it was abandoned halfway through the writing process, as if she wrote a prechorus and then decided she couldn’t be bothered to write the actual hook. “Do What U Want” is the most competent of these three, and the propulsive synth production is actually quite nice, but it’s still a little nondescript and is also host to the rather icky spectacle of Gaga, empowering female symbol, happily telling noted serial child predator R. Kelly to, ahem, “do what you want with my body”. Seriously – I try to separate art from artist, but this song goes out of its way to make it difficult for me, you know?
There are some good ideas on this album, but they’re often underdeveloped. “Sexxx Dreams” comes very dangerously close to sounding like a Jenna Maroney single, but the prechorus melody is actually kind of amazing, all lilting and druggy and drowned under effects, conveying a lovelorn, substance-addled longing that the sugary hook ends up ruining. “Dope” has one of the only effective, memorable hooks on the album, but it’s present on a ballad so overdriven and ridiculous it makes Adele sound like Taku Sugimoto, sung so passionately the melody almost disappears under the uncontrolled vocal power. It’s sort of admirable, really, that Gaga utterly belts this song as if she truly believes it were one of the greatest ballads ever written, but that gives rise to the terrifying corollary that she might actually believe that shit, and that gives me existential quivers.
In my humble opinion, there are exactly five good songs out of the fifteen on this album, and most of them have at least one flaw. The prechorus melody on “Gypsy” is truly, utterly gorgeous, and honestly one of my favourite tunes Gaga ever wrote – and she recognises she’s onto something, too, because she isolates and repeats that melody as much as she can within the pop song structure. I ain’t complaining, especially since that prechorus goes a long way towards making the annoying EDM structure more tolerable on this song than anywhere else on the album, and if one doesn’t look too closely one can almost miss that the chorus is maybe just a tad underwritten. “Mary Jane Holland” is a bafflingly little-known deep cut that almost certainly has the best hook melody on the album, full of just the sort of longing and regret that makes all her best hooks so memorable. It contrasts beautifully with the roaring, growling synths that underlie it and build up to it in the verses, and it’s all almost enough to make one forgive the bridge, which sounds like the worst showtune from the worst off-broadway show ever made. And then there’s “Applause”, which is well-structured, well-produced and well-sung enough that one may be willing to overlook the intense arrogance present in the lyrics of the second verse. “Pop culture wasn’t art, now art’s in pop culture in me”, sneers Gaga, causing my head to spin and making me contemplate suicide as I wonder if this woman has ever actually listened to the Bowie records she claims to love so much. I mean, come on – half the singing on this very song sounds like you’re directly imitating him! Show some respect to the original, ya dingus!
There are only two songs here I return to as regularly as the highlights from previous records. One of them is “Jewels N’ Drugs”, which I truly believe accidentally slipped into this reality through a crack in spacetime from bizarro world or some similarly strange universe. It’s a deeply surreal experience, right from the moment that vast, Lex Luger-type trap beat comes in and we are made to confront the spectacle of T.I brazenly announcing the presence of “HUSTLE GANG!” on a fucking Lady Gaga song. After his verse – which I can’t recall a single lyric from, not that it matters next to his charisma – we are forced to further confront the surreality of Gaga singing one of her sweetest, most tender melodies over the top of this giant, booming trap glamsplosion, crooning as softly as an angel atop the sort of music that should really be accommodating a murderously aggressive Waka Flocka Flame. The song’s oddities go deeper than that, though – the fact that Gaga sings the verse and then, uh, raps the initial hooks is bizarre enough, but the song also hosts two distinct beat changes and, perhaps most weirdly, two entirely distinct, repeated hooks, one for the first half of the song and one for the second. It’s a totally unhinged mess of a song, and I simply do not know how it can possibly exist, but I gotta admit I actually totally love it. Its eccentricities don’t actively conflict with another like they usually do on this album, and in fact they end up putting a big ol’ smile on my face for just about the song’s entire, deceptively brief runtime. Should I feel guilty about loving it so much? I mean, maybe, but I don’t. Besides, how can anyone hate Twista’s verse? That guy’s a verbal machine gun!
So, finally, we come to the best song on here, and the only song on the album that really ranks up there with Gaga’s best contributions to the state of pop music in the 2010s. “G.U.Y” is still a little disappointing compared to former best-songs-on-the-album, I guess, and it’s got nothing on “The Edge of Glory” or “Paparazzi”, but I’ve still listened to it countless times without ever getting bored, and it’s a thoroughly great, energetic dance bop with the most badass synth riff Gaga ever sang over and a properly structured build from verse through prechorus to hook that feels just as natural and cathartic as it should. The chorus melody always reminds me just a tad of Lana Del Rey, with the way she builds up and then just drops everything in the last syllable, as if the drugs have suddenly hit and slowed her to a sudden crawl. It picks up a lot of power from those bright, sizzling synths, though, flowering up around her as she sings and carrying her up to heaven even as the melody descends. It’s a great song, for sure, and if the rest of the album had lived up to its level I might be able to defy the consensus once again. But, alas, the album largely sucks just as much as people say it does, and that’s a real shame.
See, the narrative around Gaga is all wrong. This isn’t the experimental, overambitious one – that’s Born This Way! This one has some madcap moments, for sure (refer, once again, to “Jewels N’ Drugs”), but for the most part it’s actually kind of boring, and a clear artistic regression from her previous realms. It’s nakedly bowing to pop trends in a way Born This Way absolutely never did, and it’s doing so while abandoning most of the fantastic melodicism that used to make even her most misguided moments so tolerable. It’s a big step backwards, in other words, and it actually kinda pisses me off. I mean, those lyrics on “Applause” really are insulting when surrounded by this dreck, y’know? Did she really think this was her art album? Did she think is brave to incorporate all these EDM drops? Did she think she was rebelling?
Well, whatever the answer to that, this ain’t a good album. As for her next one, well – I can’t really remember. We’ll see. Next time might be a surprise, folks! (Probably not.)
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?
Well, this is a fuckin’ quantum leap, isn’t it? Diving into this right after The Fame feels rather like the exact reverse of that Deep Space Nine episode where they go back in time to the Original Series era. It’s part of the same musical universe, for sure, but it’s far more advanced, way more focused and much clearer in its artistic intent than the preceding album. Much shorter, too, which always feels like a bit of a risk from an artist this big. You’ve gotta be very confident in your product to release so very little of it to the pop-consuming public, and if there were even one real dud here it’d feel like a crucial mistake. Fortunately, there isn’t, and the end result is thirty-four minutes of nearly perfect pop music marred only by the occasional momentary lapse in taste.
If The Fame contained exactly one truly fantastic pop masterpiece, then The Fame Monster contains at least three – maybe four or even five, depending on my mood. “Bad Romance”, of course, is so universally known and widely beloved that discussing it almost feels redundant, but I guess I may as well go ahead and try anyway. As a statement of intent, it’s immediately powerful and instructive. Gone are the cheap, thin synths of “Just Dance”, and replacing them is a lush, fulsome production full of immersive fuzz, dark foggy pulsations and vast, thudding drums that sound as if they’re beating on the edge of the universe from the great black beyond. Mix in a few well-placed small details – little percussion rattles, barely-audible whistly backing synths – and you have the sort of production it’s easy to get entirely lost in, as relaxing in its omnipresence as it is propulsive in its rhythmic power. From this dark sea of synthetic glitter emerges a hook so overwhelming and undeniable in its power that it initially threatens to crush everything else on the album into irrelevance, soaring atop the towering synths as if they were thermals and immediately forming a perfect, permanent impression in one’s memory. I’d wager that every white millennial of a certain age, save perhaps for the most tragically unsalvageable metalheads, could sing you this hook word-for-word by memory. It’s such a fantastic hook, in fact, that I’m willing to pretty much totally overlook the fact that the bridge and prechorus in this thing are lazy garbage. I mean, shit, why should I care? I scarcely notice them anyway, not next to that.
See, the thing that makes the best Gaga hooks so exquisite is that she knows how to present them. The prechorus on “Bad Romance” may indeed suck, but the post-chorus – in itself a strange, rare feature that Gaga had an unusual, and welcome, fondness for – is absolutely essential, providing the dark, punchy yin to the chorus’ bright, soaring yang, creating an essential contrast between the two that renders them both equally memorable and equally important as components of the hook. “Telephone” uses a similar technique to achieve similarly stratospheric results; the hook there isn’t anthemic, but it is highly energetic, and that’s because the song is structured in such a way as to neither truly peak nor really come down. Instead, it just keeps going and going, zipping and zooming about like a rollercoaster, occasionally hitting brief highs or troughs before shooting right out of them again and keeping your adrenaline rushing. The song’s first verse – accompanied only by that lovely harp – quickly breaks out into the second, making no room for the huge chorus one might expect from a Gaga song before the pulsating synths hit and carry us firmly and irresistibly into banger territory. The transition into the chorus is an escalation, but a measured, seamless one, and the energy is transferred just as seamlessly into the post-chorus and then kept lightly floating along by the refrain (“Can call if you want, but there’s no-one home/ And you’re not gonna reach my telephone!”) before it returns in full force with Beyoncé’s verse. The ever-so-brief lull in the verse that follows is more a quick fakeout than anything else, and after that the song just keeps on building up and up until the synths and vocals explode into a delightful gushing crescendo at the finish. It’s all quite unusual for a dancepop banger, but it’s ultimately in service to the almighty concept of The Bop, and it feels like a revalatory innovation in the field.
That flowing, seamless transition style is also what makes “Speechless” so lovely. It’s a big ol’ piano power ballad that kinda takes after Queen, and that includes in the relative looseness of the song structure. The first two iterations of the hook are adorned with their own distinct, dissimilar prechoruses, and the journey from the second hook to the third feels as if it simply ignores the usual verse/bridge/refrain strictures and progresses as naturally and loosely as a stream downhill. Of course, it also brings that classic Queen bombast, which in turn brings that classic Queen problem – it’s difficult to feel much emotional connection to this big ol’ showtune, though it’s clearly going for tender regret (more on that in a second) – but it’s still a great song, and a perfectly-placed stylistic break in between the electropop bangers.
It’s also one of the few songs free from any of Gaga’s trademark spoken word interlude sections, which I’ve never found as endearing as some do. They strike me as more a crutch than a legitimate stylistic oddity, as if she’s leaning on her campy public image to cover moments where she can’t come up with proper songwriting to fill the gaps. The prechorus on “Alejandro”, much like on “Bad Romance”, smacks of this, and it’s an unfortunate blemish on what is otherwise a beautiful song. The subtle little millennial whoop that follows the introduction of the synths is one of the most quietly, irresistibly catchy moments on the entire album, and the hook is laden with far more tender pathos and regret than the silly set of lyrics really deserves. It elevates them, though, and coupled with the sweet verse melody it ends up quite undeniably lovely.
What’s really fascinating is that the aforementioned tender regret is the album’s overriding emotional mode, at least in terms of what the melodies are evoking. This is, by and large, a dance-pop album, but isolate the melodies and you’ll find most of them could just as easily serve on downbeat acoustic ballads. “Monster” is the weakest song here, mostly due to some heavily vocoded backing vocals that have aged like hot shit, but the melody makes it sound almost as if Gaga is lamenting the carnal diversion she’s found. “That boy is a moooonsteeeer“, she sings, as if it were a tragedy, and it’s the first clue that this song is not really so much about carnal satisfaction as the profound lack of it. When you read the lyrics, you notice they’re actually quite terrifyingly bleak; at no point does she express any actual desire whatsoever for the man she’s describing, and if anything she seems afraid of him, trying to rebuff him and eventually lamenting: “I wanna just dance, but he took me home instead/ Uh-oh, there was a monster in my bed/ We french kissed on a subway train/ He tore my clothes right off/ He ate my heart, and then he ate my brain”. If it wasn’t for that downbeat, bitterly regretful vocal melody, I’d not have noticed that the song is describing the sort of horrid, night-ruining sexual encounter every woman dreads having after a night out. Those big dance-party drums don’t sound so inviting now, eh?
Dysfunctional or problematic sexual psychology is actually the subject of at least half of the songs on the album. Even “Alejandro”, a mostly silly song, throws a nod towards abusive and controlling boyfriend behaviour, and that’s also the subject of one of the very best songs on the album. “Dance In The Dark” has the biggest, best synth riff this side of Depeche Mode, which rises like a gorgeous beam of light from the foggy muck of the buzzing, industrial synth intro, and it’s the centrepiece of the one Lady Gaga song I’d ever be ready to call emotionally complex. The lyrics aren’t the product of a particularly skilled poet, but they fuse well enough with the beautiful melody to make the hook really hard-hitting. It’s at once soaring and downbeat, ascendant and reserved, conveying an emotional duality one doesn’t often find in pop. It is, according to the lyrics, the sound of a girl who finds solace from her emotionally abusive boyfriend by having sex with him in the dark, enjoying the orgasm without having to fear his insults or criticisms of her body, taking the only pleasure she can find in the very architect of her misery. The melody really has to do the heavy lifting here, since Gaga just isn’t a good lyricist, but it pulls it off; this song is a perfect tragedy, hitting stratospheric emotional highs and deep lows at precisely the same time, and there are times when it is my favourite song Gaga ever wrote. Yeah, the bridge is more boring spoken-word about Princess Diana or some shit, but who cares? At this point, I find it just about impossible to even notice.
“So Happy I Could Die” is similarly bleak, though not as complex. Lyrics aside, the title is rendered immediately and clearly ironic the first time the gorgeous verse melody – possibly my favourite verse melody on the album, actually – rises up out of the gleaming, glitzy synths, and when combined with the hook it’s perhaps the most obviously, deeply sad and regretful tune on the album. “I am as vain as I allow”, she sings plaintively; “I do my hair, I gloss my eyes/ I touch myself all through the night.” It’s a bit of an obvious metaphor, but I gotta give credit where it’s due: it works, and the emptiness of her endless, meaningless drunken lusts and the pointless vanity that goes along with them is as clear as the not-so-subtle mortal terror she carries with her into her attempts at escape. “Happy in the club, with a bottle of red wine/ Stars in our eyes, ’cause we’re having a good time/ Eh-eh, eh-eh; So happy I could die”, she sings, and it’s clear as day that the emphasis is far more on “die” than it ever could be on “happy”. It’s here that the denseness of those huge, crushing synths and that endless, pounding drumbeat starts to sound more claustrophobic than liberating, and the whole apparatus starts to sound like a great gilded prison. It’s probably my favourite Gaga deep cut, and one of her very best songs.
That leaves us with “Teeth”, which is another stylistic experiment untethered from Gaga’s usual synths and drum machines. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it, honestly – Wikipedia thinks of it as an r&b song, and at least one critic called it “part country”, which isn’t quite as ridiculous as it first sounds. This isn’t a million miles removed from country, I guess, even if it is far more rhythmic than any country song made in the last sixty years or so. The guitars, horns, synths, bells and drums all play pretty much the exact same syncopated rhythm, leaving Gaga’s vocals as the only melodic instrument at play as she sings passionately about what sounds like a healthy sadomasochistic relationship. That is, it sounds healthy until you pay attention to her spoken backing vocals, which are as dry and emotionless a contrast as possible to the lead. “My religion is you”, she intones without feeling several times in a row, and it leaves me wondering whether character here is genuinely enjoying herself or just bored with it all. I guess one could describe it as an ambiguously functional relationship, which places it ahead of half the interactions depicted on this record. Either way, it’s a great and thoroughly unusual song, and secretly one of Gaga’s most unique creations.
I’m tempted to give this album a perfect score, in spite of the flaws, but I can’t quite; some of the flaws here, small as they are, do bother me. The couple of bad bridges and constant spoken word interludes are annoying, and if I’m not in the right mood they occasionally do grab me and briefly drag me out of the experience. But there’s a lot of really, truly great stuff on this record, and it’s absolutely, unquestionably the best complete project Gaga ever turned out. It’s got enough emotional depth that one may almost be willing to forget that Gaga isn’t a very good lyricist, and it displays some subtly brilliant songwriting chops of the sort that are always welcome in pop music. And I suppose I might have forgotten to mention it until now, but her voice is absolutely gorgeous the whole way through, shimmering bright and angelic while also carrying just enough human flaws to stay relatable. She really was, in theory, the complete package – an excellent songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist with ambition and intelligence, and she should, by all rights, have ended up putting out even better work than this. But let’s not focus on the negatives for now – let’s just focus on this nearly perfect pop album and enjoy it for what it is. Electropop doesn’t get much better than this.
Review By: Michael Strait
Full of failures, and not yet the fun kind.
After reviewing a couple of consistently good/great artists in a row, I decided to try something a little different. Reviewing good music gets boring after a while, but I didn’t just wanna review some horrible shit right away. Now, how about an artist with a lot of raw talent who often messes it up with terrible artistic choices, who seems determined to compensate for her incredible, preternatural sense of melody with the worst taste imaginable? Ah, now we’re talking. Continue reading “STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)”