“Yoü and I,” one of the best songs Lady Gaga has ever written, is buried 13 tracks deep into her blockbuster 2011 album Born This Way. All cocky, cowboy-boot swagger and twangy-sweet snarl, it’s a country song, if we must abide by things as old-fashioned as genre, but you could also just call it an American song: It sounds like the soundtrack to a beer commercial too perfect to exist. (It was also an auspicious single for her personally, too: She met Taylor Kinney, the man who would become her fiancé, while shooting the song’s video.) On the original recording, she sings “Yoü and I” to her “cool Nebraska guy,” but when it came time to release it as a single, she did something insane: She recorded a bunch of different versions, so that each radio station could play an edit specifically addressing its city or state (“For Houston, Houston, I love ya, Houston!!!”). Though it has much competition — wearing meat to an awards show, auctioning off a piece of paper she had sex on, flirting with Kermit the Frog — I believe the state-specific re-recording of “Yoü and I” to be the most quintessentially Lady Gaga thing that Lady Gaga has ever done. It embodied all of her glorious contradictions: It was both arch and deeply sincere, digital-era and old-fashioned (who puts that much effort into radio edits anymore?), bombastic and nakedly needy. She was trying, quite literally, to be everywhere, and from everywhere, at once.
In the three years since her last solo album, Artpop, Gaga’s career, too, has been all over the map. She made an album with Tony Bennett. She honored Maria von Trapp at the Oscars, and with that one clarion note she instantly became the one-woman house band for all of television’s most important events: national anthems and Grammy tributes and, soon, Super Bowl halftime shows. She acted on American Horror Story; she won a Golden Globe and, much more prestigiously, Leonardo DiCaprio’s scorn. After the tawdry mermaid orgy that was her Artpop Ball, she seemed in her subsequent media appearances to be unofficially embarking on a different, decidedly tamer pageant: The You Bet Your Ass Lady Gaga Will EGOT Someday World Tour.
Now comes Joanne, Gaga’s fourth solo album, which seeks out the artistic middle ground between the traditionalist who can bring Julie Andrews to tears and the troublemaker who once got a performance artist to vomit on her at a Doritos-sponsored concert. A little bit country, a little bit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Joanne is cut from the same cloth as “Yoü and I,” though not all of its songs aim for those heights. It’s named for her late aunt, who died of lupus at age 19, 12 years before Gaga was born. It’s a fitting creation myth/ghost story; the past always seems overlaid upon the present in Lady Gaga’s work. She’s Burt Bacharach in sequined hot pants; she’s a Liza Minnelli for the Beyoncé era; she’s Streisand Spice. She projects the kind of timelessness that makes it very easy to forget that Lady Gaga is just 30, a ’90s kid trying more to be slightly more like Cole Porter than Kurt Cobain. But there’s something about Gaga’s old-soul qualities that isolate her, and even make her feel like an outsider in this current moment of pop. Joanne has the power but also the pathos of a true loner, as do the mythic American characters on the record. It’s hard, when she sings the title of the psychedelic stomper “John Wayne,” not to notice how much his name sounds like her aunt’s.
Joanne’s first single, “Perfect Illusion” — an operatic rocker with an unfortunately aggressive key change — definitely wasn’t one of Gaga’s greatest hits, but it also wasn’t the disaster some people wanted to make it out to be. And some people really wanted to make it out to be one. It has become de rigueur for pop stars to address their “haters,” but few of them have as vocal a chorus of people pointing out their every failure as Lady Gaga. Critics rushed prematurely to declare Artpop a commercial flop; a misreported and since-deleted Examiner article spread the persistent rumor that it cost the label $25 million in losses and that it caused several people to lose their jobs. But there’s a strange reciprocity at work here: Lady Gaga, ever the theater kid trying to audition for the world, feeds off this kind of negative energy — in some sense, she needs it to justify the stance she takes in her songs as the fighter, the underdog. She feeds the trolls; the trolls feed her. Which is why it wasn’t particularly surprising when she publicly fired back at some of the most famous critics of “Perfect Illusion,” like EDM duo the Chainsmokers and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney (who later told her to “lighten up”).
But unlike Artpop, Joanne isn’t a record about combating external evils so much as inner demons, and specifically those that spring up in the wake of heartbreak. Earlier this year, Gaga and Kinney broke off their engagement, and it’s hard not to hear a heaviness in her voice on quite a few of these songs. There’s a more genuine pathos here than the more theatrical sadness of, say, Artpop’s “Dope,” and in the context of Joanne it’s hit or miss. Sometimes it enlivens these songs with real feeling (see: her SNL performance of the wrenching power ballad “Million Reasons”), but sometimes it just makes some of the more downtempo songs feel listless, like the understated title track, or the limpid “Sinner’s Prayer.”
The most radical thing about this record, though, is that it manages to find several rejuvenating alternatives to songs about romantic love and heartbreak — specifically in communal love and female solidarity. “Come to Mama,” the first standout on a lively Side B, is just a total sonic bear hug of a song, a touchy-feely doo-wop throwback written by Father John Misty that’s as warm-and-fuzzy as “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” The throwback ’70s AM radio vibes — the signature touch of co-executive producer Mark Ronson — continue on “Hey Girl,” a great, call-and-response duet between Gaga and Florence Welch. Sonically, it’s a slab of soulful, synth-drenched funk; thematically, it’s like if Brandy and Monica decided that the boy is not even worth fighting over and decided to put their energy into starting a consciousness-raising group instead. (“Hey girl, hey girl,” sings Welch in her velvety croon, “We can make it easy if we lift each other!”) Gaga’s artistry has always been about the interplay between the masculine and the feminine elements in a single body, and in the past she’s had more fun — and found it more subversive — to lean on the former. But from its title on down, Joanne is a strikingly feminine album, not because it’s “soft” or “pretty” or anything superficial like that, but because it seeks and finds a solace to romantic heartache in female bonding and an intragenerational sisterhood. (“Girl, where do you think you’re going?” she sings on the title track, partially to an aunt she never knew and partially to herself).
“I was 23, she was 35,” Gaga begins over a mournful acoustic guitar loop, “I was spiraling out, and she was so alive.” The song is called “Grigio Girls” (yes, as in Pinot) and although it’s a song about friendship, it is, I think, the most intimate love song Lady Gaga’s ever sung. Before hearing “Grigio Girls,” I could just as soon envision Lady Gaga strapping into her cryogenic space-egg on a Friday night as just hanging with some friends for a Girls Night In, and yet, this song is incredibly humanizing: She sings of watching The Bachelorette, dying Ashley’s hair, and honoring the Spice Girls. The song is something stranger and smaller than simply a hash-taggable ode to #SquadGoals, and I think the power is in that shout-out to an “Ashley” that she knows but we don’t — it’s gloriously specific, and in being so specific it becomes universally relatable. She did not have to leave a blank space there so you could sing your own best friend’s name. Joanne is a transitional album, and I think the beginning of the change it marks is Gaga realizing that she doesn’t have to be everything to everyone at all times, a change that will continue to take hold as she moves, like all stars must, away from the center of pop’s universe. She doesn’t have to be all 50 states at once. Perhaps just the intimacy of a single living room will suffice.