The savvy Lady Gaga fan in 2020, when confronted with a new song called “Fun Tonight,” knows enough to flinch. Because it is a latter-day Lady Gaga song; because it is 2020. “I’m not having fun tonight,” goes the chorus to “Fun Tonight.” Right. Thought so.
The vibe is downbeat electro-pop. (If you’re still obsessed with Ally, her A Star Is Born character—and why wouldn’t you be—it’s caught halfway between the bubbly frivolity of “Why Did You Do That?” and the stern grandeur of “Shallow.”) The lyrics range from “Wish I could be what I know I am” to “I feel like I’m in a prison hell.” The song’s intended target, according to savvy Lady Gaga gossip hounds, is her ex-fiancé Christian Carino. (She is now reportedly dating a New York Times editor’s ex-boyfriend.) “You love the paparazzi, love the fame / Even though you know it causes me pain,” Gaga laments, evoking past glories, now drained of their glory, or at least their frivolity. Even her idea of a prison hell has changed dramatically since she recruited Beyoncé for the “Telephone” video.
Gaga launches the chorus of “Fun Tonight” with a lovely, anguished falsetto swoop, the words borderline nonsensical—“I’m feelin’ the way that I’m feelin’, I’m feelin’ with you”—the anguish nonetheless palpable. The end result is neither the best nor the saddest song on Gaga’s sixth album, Chromatica, out Friday. The best song—and “Shallow” excepted, her best and hopefully biggest pop hit in nearly a decade—actually is the saddest. But dip anywhere into this record, even the fussy orchestral interludes somehow, and the bawling-on-the-dance-floor pathos will bowl you over the same way it bowled her over.
In touting Gaga’s glorious return to full-blown dance pop after the meta rockist provocations of 2018’s A Star Is Born and the minivan-ad turbo-Americana of 2016’s actually quite beguiling Joanne, the Chromatica rollout had a soothingly chaotic throwback quality to it. The goofy tweets. The wanton messiness. (The leak-plagued emergence of bombastic lead single “Stupid Love” was a saga unto itself.) The gaudy Grimes-before-Grimes sci-fi flamboyance of the early visuals, like the cutscenes in a Japanese RPG whose battle system you could never hope to understand. The COVID-borne release delay (which also nixed a planned Coachella sneak attack) was a disquieting new wrinkle, certainly, but it felt great, in a nostalgic future-shock sorta way, to be once again bewildered.
With reliably brash production from BloodPop, Burns, Skrillex, and other proud maximalists, the resulting record, which spreads 16 tracks across a relatively restrained 43 minutes, has a surface outrageousness you’ll certainly recognize, but a relatable bone-deep melancholy too. Unlike, say, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia—a superior pop album but a far more discordant self-quarantine listen, given its raw yearning for communal dance-party release—Chromatica is the perfect summer album for the Lost Summer of 2020. “I’m completely lonely / Please don’t judge me,” she entreats us amid the trance-adjacent freedom-via-isolation jam “1000 Doves”; her idea of typical pop-star self-empowerment this time out is bellowing, “I’m still something if I don’t got a man / I’m a free woman,” on “Free Woman.” It’s unsettling that she even felt it necessary to point that out.
The flamboyance and the desolation—“Even when you feel 6 feet under, you can still fire on all cylinders,” Gaga told Zane Lowe in February, describing her studio mind-set as “I’m miserable, I’m sad, I’m depressed”—are productively at odds from the start. “I’m tired of screaming at the top of my lungs,” she announces on “Alice,” her voice ever-so-slightly robotic, the uptempo house chug evoking a Wonderland with little wonder in it. At times this restraint, this hint of steely resignation undercuts the wackiness, which is a shame: The blaring neo-disco of “Replay” could serve to be, let’s say, 50 percent wilder, and the understated “Sour Candy,” costarring the disruptive K-pop girl group Blackpink, could be, let’s say, 200 percent more disruptive. But when she gets the uppers vs. downers balance just right, look out.
The one-two punch of “911” (her monotone extra robotic, her mentality extra self-defeating) and “Plastic Doll” (her falsetto swoops extra anguished) is especially bruising. The self-medicating lyrics to “911” range from “Turnin’ up emotional faders / Keep repeating self-hating phrases” to “Wish I laughed and kept the good friendships”; the hushed bridge to “Plastic Doll” begins with her chanting, “Tell me, who dressed you? / Where’d you get that hat? / Why is she cryin’? / What’s the price tag?” There is a hint here—more than a hint, really—of the dehumanization that pop stardom demands, the disastrous private life that a boldface-celebrity lifestyle inevitably leaves in its wake. She sounds more sympathetic on this topic than Drake does, anyway.
But “Rain on Me,” a triumphant pop-star summit with Ariana Grande, is the peak that expertly doubles as a valley: “It’s coming down on me / Water like misery,” Gaga wails, before the monster hook kicks in. It’s anthemic but frightfully vulnerable, an instant pool-party classic with the troubled soul of a drained pool. It’s her best pop song since, what? “The Edge of Glory”? The hug she and Grande share at the end of the video is awkward in an awfully endearing way. Your first hug with someone you’re not currently living with, however many months from now that transpires, will look a lot like it.
Very little of this has that Gaga-specific WTF quality you’re likely craving: It’s the difference between chain-smoking and fashioning all your cigarettes into a pair of rad sunglasses. But “Sine From Above,” a late-album collaboration with Sir Elton John, gets closest to liftoff, emotional and otherwise. The theme is musical inspiration as the balm for personal devastation: “Then the signal split in two / The sound created stars like me and you,” the two divas sing to each other, consolingly. “Before there was love, there was silence.” It’s egotistical in an awfully unguarded way.
But the most jarring and empowering and weirdly thrilling moment in the song belongs to John alone: He thunders, “When I was young / I felt immortal!” with more ferocious catharsis than you’ll find in all of Rocketman. It would simply sound ridiculous if you didn’t totally believe him. “Sine From Above” wraps up with an abrupt, colossal breakbeat, and the disorientation is pleasurable indeed. There are lightning flashes of the classic, heedless, fearless Lady Gaga throughout Chromatica, and all the more thrilling for how brief they are, and all the sadder for their brevity.