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On “Chromatica,” Lady Gaga strives to bring introspection to the dance-pop that made her a star. But hallmarks like her audaciousness and sense of adventure are in shorter supply.
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By Jon Pareles,Wesley Morris,Caryn Ganz and Lindsay Zoladz
CARYN GANZ Lady Gaga isn’t built to go halfway. She plays sweeping statements as virtuosically as her grand piano, and shameless statements as shamelessly as her keytar. This passion has brought her one of the most fervent fandoms in pop. It’s also set up tensions between Lady Gaga the performer and Stefani Germanotta the person, which Gaga has said grew to the point that they emotionally and physically sickened her over the last decade. Her sixth album, “Chromatica,” she told Zane Lowe, is an attempt to reclaim a sound she loved from her past while retaining the humanity that was stripped from her as she was objectified and jettisoned to the realm of the hyperfamous.
“Chromatica” is the promised “return to form,” Gaga’s first dance-pop LP in seven years after an album of duets with Tony Bennett in 2014, the stripped-down authenticity play “Joanne” in 2016 and her detour into the world of “A Star Is Born” in 2018. It has some sparkling vocal moments. It reminds us how easily Lady Gaga, 34, can coax the world onto the dance floor. But it feels overwhelmingly safe — a low bar to clear when you’ve released two of the greatest pop albums of the century (“The Fame Monster” and “Born This Way”) and one of the most audacious, enjoyable hot messes ever (“Artpop”). We were promised jetpacks; we got parachutes.
Lady Gaga herself seems torn over whether over-the-topness is still part of the Lady Gaga proposition. The artwork and graphics associated with “Chromatica” depict her as an alien-esque Stefani Scissorhands, and the excess and boldness hark back to “Born This Way.” But on that album, the music and the images united under an umbrella of fearless ambition. “Artpop” was similarly daring. The songs on “Chromatica,” however, rarely brush up against that kind of uninhibited gutsiness.
WESLEY MORRIS I’ll say that the old excess is missed. I don’t know what about Gaga is “cool” to like. “Teeth” and “A-Yo” are near the top of this guy’s list. “Artpop” is a weird album that knows it’s weird and yet manages to exceed its self-consciousness. It sounds fantastic and it hangs together as a project — even some of the bloat works. But you feel like whatever she wanted to be on that album, she was — Bowie, Madonna, David Byrne, Grace Jones.
Back then (seven years ago!) she was still a master satirist of celebrity and hot with all kinds of humor. She made Lady Gaga this mutant persona of fame — utterly synthesized, yet somehow a true original anyway. Almost, ever since, the priestess of comic social indictment has wanted to explore her humanity. The persona’s mostly gone. And now she’s reckoning with “realness” and her personality. Musically, that transition doesn’t excite me as much. But the woman’s too smart not to settle into herself.
At the moment, though, I prefer the Gaga to the Lady. And maybe she does too. The last song on the album is “Babylon.” In the first 35 seconds, she applies about four different vocal approaches and one terrific key change. The rest of the song clocks in at a deceptively thick 2:41 and is like if the B-52’s and Grace Jones turned “Vogue” into “Like a Prayer.” It’s all catchy non sequiturs (“that’s gossip”) and, once the gospel choir arrives, it’s camp (“that’s gooooss-ip”). I hate “returns to form,” especially when the artist doing the returning picks the wrong form. But this is “return to form” as cliffhanger. Is she going to stay returned?
JON PARELES Too often, a “return to form” is a self-defeating strategy. Maybe radio stations like it, but it’s hampered by self-consciousness and second-guessing, by a sense of calculation, by the fact that it’s not the product of the nutty, unjaded impulses of the original. And like any sequel, it has to compete with the all-out love that the fans bring to older songs, which are now burnished by familiarity and accumulated memories.
Bringing back the four-on-the-floor thump of Gaga’s old dance-pop is a job for professionals, and “Chromatica” has certainly lined them up; why have one producer when you can have up to a dozen? But bringing back the wild, nothing-to-lose flair that made Gaga more than an interchangeable dance-pop belter is a job for an artist.
On the albums between “Artpop” and “Chromatica,” Lady Gaga dropped her force field of over-the-top invincibility, and she certainly made doe-eyed vulnerability endearing in “A Star Is Born” and in songs like “Million Reasons.” The lyrics on “Chromatica” often proclaim some need or insecurity, but then go on to armor-plate them with BloodPop’s E.D.M. beats. It’s as if Gaga has exchanged the bravado she picked up from Madonna — and ran with — for something closer to Robyn’s dance-crying. Yet to me, it tends to sound like a plan rather than an irresistible impulse. She’s not the only one heading back to the dance floor this year; Dua Lipa made the same move. But for Lipa it’s a lark; for Gaga it means lifting up a heavy mantle.
LINDSAY ZOLADZ Several listens in, I still have a lot of questions about “Chromatica,” but I know this much is true: This would not be Jackson Maine’s favorite Lady Gaga album. (I like to believe it’s “Artpop.” He was full of surprises.) So much of this album’s aesthetic feels like a deliberate pushback against the last half-decade of Gaga’s run, though it can be easy to forget that stretch saw some career highs: Her triumphant Super Bowl halftime performance, a winning turn in “A Star Is Born,” and a deserved best original song Oscar for the new karaoke standard “Shallow.”
Not that you would know that from the downcast vibe of a lot of these tracks! A lot of listeners were probably expecting this record to deliver them from their quarantine woes, but the exuberant lead single “Stupid Love” turned out to be something of a red herring. I was immediately struck by how melancholy many of these songs are, despite their hopped-up tempos. Sad bangers abound. The first proper lyric on this record, from the pulsating “Alice,” is “Could you pull me out of this alive?”; “911,” Gaga told Lowe, is about popping antipsychotic medication. Perhaps you expect your spirit to be resurrected by a song called “Fun Tonight,” until you get to the chorus: “I’m not having fun tonight.” Well then.
Another lyric from that song stands out to me: “You love the paparazzi, you love the fame/Even though you know it causes me pain.” Perhaps more than any other Gaga record, “Chromatica” feels self-referential, gesturing back to the early look and sound of Gaga’s career. Songs like “911” and (a personal favorite) “Plastic Doll” made me wonder, with a shudder of mortality, whether late-aughts nostalgia is already a thing. Still, “Plastic Doll” is compelling because although it’s got that “Fame Monster” gleam on the surface, its lyrics shatter that image into sharp pieces. “I’m bouncing off the walls,” she sings, to a listener that could either be a demanding lover or an overzealous fan, “I’m not your plastic doll.”
And also what (er, where?) is “Chromatica,” even?
GANZ “Chromatica” as a song concept, at least, is a series of orchestral interludes meant to communicate weighty emotional shifts. They divide the album into thirds, and I think all of us are most interested in the middle section, where Gaga plainly excavates her pain. The most adventurous yet least successful section is the last, led by “Sine From Above,” a shapeless E.D.M. disaster featuring Elton John that’s credited to 13 writers and six producers. Gaga and John share some DNA — it’s in the piano power ballads that have distinguished her past albums (“Speechless,” “Yoü and I,” “Gypsy”), and it emerges in their magnificent awards show performances together. Putting John to such ill use here only underscores how in searching for depth, Gaga has actually flattened many of her appealing dimensions on “Chromatica.”
A few things I do like, a lot? Gaga’s decision to speak-sing more, in her captivating lower register. The glittery hopefulness of “Alice.” The winking monotony of “911.” The super-light “Swish Swish”/“Truffle Butter” beat of “Sour Candy.” The willingness to gesture to “Vogue” on “Babylon” after getting dinged for nodding to “Express Yourself” on “Born This Way.” And “Enigma,” arguably the album’s best track, which saunters onto the dance floor, wags its finger, and slickly references all of the album’s themes and aesthetics in a tight three minutes.
MORRIS Gang, I’m going to toss out two albums that came to mind listening to this one: Madonna’s “American Life” and Katy Perry’s “Witness.” Both are expensive-sounding attempts at statement pop (about the world, about the self) that are also hollow because they neither reveal much that’s artistically compelling nor make much of a statement. Isn’t “Chromatica” another of this sort of album, a compass pointing in too many directions? Jon, you’re right about the Dua Lipa album, too. Lightness is the enormous source of its bliss. Lady Gaga has shattered too much cultural glass to go barefoot like that. (And Lindsay, speaking of Perry, this question about what “Chromatica” is: a state of high emotional vividness perhaps; or maybe a fancy way of saying “Prism.”)
I agree, though, that the strongest writing, production and singing are in the middle. “Plastic Doll,” “Enigma” and “Replay” have the wit and introspection that you want from an artist you know can deliver. It’s also the section of the album where she sounds connected to the anger, pain and defeat she’s singing about. These are strong songs that also sound new for her.
PARELES I’m with you, Wesley. I think of that middle stretch of the album as the sci-fi section: She’s singing about herself as an interface with technology — “Is it all just virtual?” she wonders in “Enigma” — and the music takes her up on it, with all the vocal effects and harmony swoops in “911” and the way “Plastic Doll” plays hide-and-seek with the 4/4 thump, letting the machines chatter among themselves when it drops out. And “Replay,” despite its title, doesn’t go for easy nostalgia; it’s about scars and psychological torture, and even with its pumping club beat — and the trademark Gaga stutter in the chorus on “r-replay” — she’s surrounded by voices that sound like a self-doubting choir of the damned. At least for a few tracks, Gaga and her producers don’t seem so worried about fitting some format.
ZOLADZ I too hear in these lyrics some ambivalence about whether or not outrageous artifice is Gaga’s comfort zone anymore — the sounds and visuals present themselves as wacky and future-minded, but emotionally she still has one cowboy boot in the “Joanne” era. There are some sonic elements I really like, particularly in the album’s cyborgy electro-pop second section, but overall I found myself wishing she’d gone with some collaborators even farther left-of-center (Sophie was rumored to be involved in some of the early stages) or just gotten Max Martin to co-write half the album, as he did the transcendent “Stupid Love.”
One of my favorite Gagas is drag-pandering Gaga. Which is to say I enjoy the ridiculous “Babylon,” and it’s probably the “Chromatica” track that makes me most sad about how long it might be until big, splashy pop concerts are a thing again. Oh, to party like it’s B.C. (or even, like, December 2019 A.D.).
MORRIS I feel bad for this record. Ordinarily, it would be the soundtrack of Pride month. Now feels like the wrong time for it. Emerging from this increasingly ugly moment and having Gaga’s colors on the other side would be a treat.
ZOLADZ One final thought: Gaga always wants to be seen as a good old-fashioned album artist. Friday morning she tweeted a very earnest plea to listen to the album in order, “from beginning to end.” (Somewhere in the beyond, Jackson Maine grunted in assent.) And, Caryn, while I agree that her first two albums are as close to unskippable as pop records get, I think this emphasis on The Album sometimes sets her up for harsher criticism than she deserves.
“Artpop” and “Joanne” are both spotty for sure, but they also have some excellent songs that complicate the critical narratives about them (that they were a disaster and a staid disappointment). And because “Chromatica” is also a mixed bag, I worry that it will share their fate in the shorthand of the collective imagination. But at the end of the day, while a few of these songs make me yearn for the Ally material from “A Star Is Born,” there are a few stand-alone tracks (“Enigma,” “Alice,” “Plastic Doll”) that I can imagine putting on repeat during this cruel summer.
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