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.