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Album Review

Lady Gaga's worn a lot of outfits in her colorful career. Kermit the Frogs. Meat. Bubbles. Shells. A bird's nest (or something like it, anyway.) But on the cover of her fifth studio album, she's wearing a pink cowboy hat.

Turns out that's a telling clue. No, she hasn't gone completely country. Not quite. There are still synths and beats and pop-music trappings on Joanne. But there's also a lot of stripped-down acoustic material here that, with just a little more twang, would be straight-up country music.

As for the album's title, it's a reference to Lady Gaga's deceased aunt, Joanne Stefani Germanotta, who died at 19 due to complications from Lupus before Gaga ever knew her. "This is something that a lot of people have experienced—that someone they loved is gone or that someone that they love is possibly going to be gone in the future," she told E! regarding her aunt's connection to the album. "I've always used the fact that she didn't get to live the rest of her life as a sense of strength and power within me that I have to go out and live the rest for her."

And just as Joanne Germanotta's story was a tragic one, there's plenty of raw emotion and hard-luck storytelling on the album bearing her name.

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"Joanne" mourns a premature death ("Take my hand, stay, Joanne/Heaven's not/Ready for you"). Later, lines vaguely reference some sort of happy afterlife: "Honestly, I know where you're goin'/ … Can't wait to see you soar."

"Come to Mama" exhorts listeners to care for each other and to stop fighting ("Everybody's got to love each other/Stop throwin' stones at your sisters and your brothers"). The song seems to critique the notion that faith and science are necessarily in conflict ("Dude in a lab coat and a man of God/ … Fought over prisms and a 40-day flood"). Lady Gaga also counsels, "There's gonna be no future/If we don't figure this out." Similarly, "Angel Down" longs for an end to the violence and apathy that claim people's lives ("Shots were fired on the street/By the church where we used to meet/Angel down, angel down/But the people just stood around"). The song also wonders, "Where are our leaders?" and asks, "Has our young courage faded?" Gaga hints at God when she sings, "Doesn't everyone belong/In the arms of the sacred?"

We hear a prayer for guidance in a tough relationship on "Million Reasons" ("I bow down to pray/ … Lord, show me the way"). On "Sinner's Prayer," Lady Gaga tells a man she's not strong enough to carry his emotional baggage ("I can carry you, but not your ghosts").

"Hey Girl," which features indie singer Florence Welch, seems to be about female friendship and solidarity: "We can make it easy if we lift each other/ … We don't need to keep on one-in' up another." On "Perfect Illusion," someone who was initially swept off her feet by a man realizes his affection wasn't real ("It wasn't love/It was a perfect illusion"), but says she's better off knowing the hard truth ("I still feel the blow/But at least now I know"). A stripper on "Diamond Heart" affirms her value ("I'm not flawless, but I got a diamond heart") and suggests that she'll be leaving that work behind ("'Cause soon I'm breaking out of here"). She also laments that what seems like a reference to sexual abuse, but …

Objectionable Content

… she does so profanely ("Some a--hole wrecked my innocence/ … A cruel king made me tough"), and now she's pretty hard-hearted herself as she perhaps gives a lap dance to a customer ("And this dance is on you/One, five, ten, lay a million on me/Before the end of this song"). There's also a reference to getting drunk to do her job ("Head full of Jameson") as well as this cynical line about how vice pays more than virtue: "Girl's playin' bad 'cause it doesn't pay to be good." (Elsewhere on the album, we hear a few uses of "h---" and one s-word.)

"A-Yo" includes suggestive lyrics ("Get off on me, my body's got you pleading") and references to smoking cigarettes. "John Wayne" indulges the rush of a romance with a reckless man ("I crave a real wild man/I'm strung out on John Wayne/Baby, let's get high, John Wayne"). Though "Hey Girl" is ostensibly about female friendship, some of the lyrics traded between Gaga and Welch could also be heard as referring to a more intimate relationship ("But darlin', don't you leave me/Baby, don't you leave me"). Later, we glimpse these two women stumbling drunkenly out of a bar, with one of them apparently vomiting ("Help me hold my hair back/Walk me home 'cause I can't find a cab"). There's a reference to hand-holding could indicate either a close friendship or perhaps, again, a romantic one ("Held hands like were 17 again").

"Dancin' in Circles" is about a heartbroken and lonely woman who tries to dull her emotional pain through fantasy and masturbation. We hear this censor-skirting flirtation with the f-word in a sexual context as well: "Let's funk downtown/ … Funk me downtown." Meanwhile, "Perfect Illusion" compares a rapturous physical connection with a man to using drugs: "I felt you touchin' me/High like amphetamine."

In its well-intended, why-can't-we-all-just-get-along plea, "Come to Mama" unfortunately reinforces the sense that the convictions people argue about actually don't matter: "So why do we gotta fight over ideas?/ … So why do we gotta tell each other how to live?/The only prisons that exist are the ones we put each other in."

Summary Advisory

Lady Gaga launched her career with a potent combination of earworm dance beats and outrageous media-magnet antics. But on Joanne, she mostly leaves the theatrics behind on stark songs that are more haunting than catchy, more painfully desperate than sensually provocative.

Sometimes the result is a bare expression of emotion. Sometimes there seems to be a real longing for God. And at still other times, the pulverizing trials of life—sexual abuse, violence, heartbreak and desperation—simply yield wild, profane responses.

There are some hard things here, to be sure. But Lady Gaga seems to be inching past hedonism for hedonism's sake, trading her early-career, Madonna-mimicking shtick for something more substantive … if still reckless and risqué at times.

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October 21, 2016

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Adam R. Holz

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