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)”
Review by: Jonathan Moss
This fucking album is full of bangers, goddamn. Well, they’re not so much bangers as slow moody atmospheric tracks with no beats or really anything like that. Like an early Brian Eno album but a lot more ominous. Trust me, this isn’t Lustmord level shit (fucking terrifying) but it’s still definitely in the area of dark ambient. All the tracks sound vaguely like they could have been written as classical pieces (great melodies and the like) but they’ve been warped by some sort of robot from another planet from us and processed through a series of aesthetic sensibilities we have no knowledge of, depriving us of contextualisation.
Reading back that sounds kind of negative actually but i meant it the fuck as a compliment, this is one of my favourite albums of all time! I love to listen to it and feel the way the warped music sounds, it can give me the sort of vibe perfect for writing something Lovecraftian. It’s music to start a weird Gnostic cult to. Actually nah that’s probably more Current 93 but I could see this music making a decent substitute.
“Cliffs” is one of my favourite tracks on the record, its synthesizers have a warm dreary lying on a beanie cushion made of cannabis vibe, but with the texture of a beautiful plant on an alien planet. I love “Rhubarb” as well, it sounds like music that would make the perfect soundtrack for the opening act of a psychological or surreal horror. “Curtains” is great too, it sounds like what a curtain in a David Lynch film at its most avant-garde would sound like, or just the kind of music that would permeate the dust. “Radiator” just straight out sounds like horror music, I’m fond of that one.
So yeah would overall rate this one pretty highly, definitely a classic in the sadly underlooked ambient genre, and broader electronic music as well! It’s the closest you can come to a bad acid trip done safely!
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…