When I launched TIDAL on Saturday, I noticed there were a number of new albums that I wanted to check out, such as Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and Korn’s The Serenity Of Suffering. Yet, I found myself being drawn to Lady Gaga’s new album Joanne.
It would be fair to say that I have previously judged Gaga’s talents as mere fanfare rather honourable musical talents. That said, Joanne is an album that has radically changed my perception and I’m happy to acknowledge my prior singlemindedness. What I truly appreciate about Joanne is things are kept simple. I find the album to be stripped back, in terms of production, and this has enabled Gaga’s incredible vocal to come to the forefront of the music. However, my views will likely be challenged as Subjective Sounds contributor, Elisa Pacelli, has stated that ‘it sounds more like a debut album, to my ears.’ While my subjective opinion will differ from Elisa’s, I feel her aversion to the album is because of the before mentioned stripped down production.
As I listen to the album, I find that Gaga is very present in the soundstage. In her previous works, I find her vocal presence is sometimes lost in the mix. While Joanne has a pop core, I feel it is more acoustic/ballad driven when directly compared to Gaga’s previous albums. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Remember, The Beatles had their rock/pop era, followed by their successful ballad era. I would put Gaga in this same category; Joanne is a coming of age album with nothing prove and the only aim is to satisfy the musician’s soul. It is also transitional and trendsetting, arguably escaping a number of other celebrated modern pop music styles. In essence, it is unique while not alienating itself.
It is always interesting to see how artists reinvent themselves. Some are capable of change and others simply never find an alternative groove. I feel Joanne presents a style that Gaga can continue to evolve upon. However, it is Lada Gaga and therefore all bets are off. Gaga continues to pay homage to Madonna throughout the album, and I feel this evolution of style is also reminiscent of Madonna’s ability to change direction, often keeping ahead of musical trends. That isn’t a bad thing as it shows Gaga will continue to be relevant for decades to come.
When it comes to the mastering of the album, I’m also pleasantly surprised. While I would have liked a slightly wider soundstage and dynamic range, I find that the mastering, for this album, is absolutely perfect. If you’ve been reading Subjective Sounds for any length of time, you may find this statement to be contradictory as I often long for greater dynamic range in modern music. While my overall view has not changed, I’m also happy to call a spade a spade. Increasing the dynamic range, just because you can, doesn’t necessarily mean the music will have more impact; especially when the musical elements are stripped down to core elements as found on this release. This stripping down of sound shouldn’t be seen as negative, in fact less can be more and in this case it certainly is. Regardless, there is ample instrument separation and the soundstage doesn’t sound cluttered. Streaming the album from TIDAL Hi-Fi was absolutely flawless and made both my portable and main audiophile rigs sing. It really is that good!
The same unfortunately can not be said for Elisa’s preferred Gaga album, Born This Way. Elisa has subjectively stated that she prefers Born This Way and as it has been a while since I listened to Born This Way, I thought it best to revisit the album before denouncing Elisa’s thoughts. One key issue I have with Born This Way is the hot mastering. Literally, I had to turn down the volume of Born This Way by 5-10%, after listening to Joanne, as the mastering is brickwalled and subsequently fatiguing. I should note that I also listened to Born This Way on TIDAL Hi-Fi and through the same setup as Joanne, hence my direct comparisons. It is important to note that Born This Way is largely a different album, although that doesn’t excuse poor mastering. Born This Way is also more disco/dance/techno driven and while I do enjoy these musical genres, I appreciate the sonic and musicality shift Gaga has made with Joanne. She is truly an incredible vocalist and Joanne highlights that significantly more than Born This Way. I also feel Born This Way is a much more complicated composition and while some may enjoy that, I find that it can be distracting. Born This Way is a very good album in its own right; I just find it is overproduced.
Diamond Heart sets the tone for the entire album. It highlights Gaga’s vocals and while the beat is largely predictable, it is toe tapping and head bopping ecstasy.
A-YO, along with Diamond Heart, are somewhat reminiscent of Gaga’s older works, but they also introduce a new level of production that I feel has been missing in Gaga’s catalogue. While A-YO isn’t the strongest song on the album, it is certainly enjoyable. I love the extension on Gaga’s vocal throughout this song. She has a smooth grittiness in her vocal that comes through to the listener, especially when listening on headphones.
Joanne has a lovely acoustic guitar introduction that reminds me of any number of folk songs from the 60s and 70s. I love the simple composition with the steady introduction of instruments and musical elements as the song progresses from verse to chorus. This is one of my favourite tracks on the album and I truly hope that Gaga continues with this style on future albums.
John Wayne picks up the beat and is perfectly paced, ensuring it does not feel out of place following Joanne. The song is a little over produced and the chorus is rather complex from a musical perspective. This is one song where a greater dynamic range and wider soundstage would have helped. That said, it isn’t bad and I like it the more I play it, but I would personally have reduced the number of musical elements in the chorus as I feel it takes away from the song a little. Also, instead of synthetic instruments throughout the chorus, an electric guitar solo would have been perfect.
Dancin’ In Circles is a mixed bag from my perspective. That said, I like it and while it has a number of eclectic influences, I find that I am thoroughly enjoying the lead up to the chorus, but when the chorus kicks in I then feel deflated. It is an interesting dichotomy as normally the chorus would be stronger than the verse.
Perfect Illusion has an addictively perfect beat and I love Gaga’s vocals on this track. Yes, they sound a little processed in places but I like it. It works really well for her type of vocal delivery. This song will be superb live.
Million Reasons is such an elegant song. It is reminiscent of Joanne, but this is the song that makes me declare this is Gaga’s best work to date. It is arguably easy to make a pop album, full of musical elements that detract one’s mind, but it is challenging to perform a vocal ballad that is off the charts. This is generally why I like ballads from rock and metal bands as truly skilled vocalists can extend their vocal range, whereas others are simply not capable of commanding the microphone in an ultimate solo performance.
Sinner’s Prayer has a very cool bass introduction that sets the tone of the song and reappears throughout. This song is almost country inspired and do I dare call it pop-country, or should it be country-pop? Regardless, it works! When you factor in Gaga’s performance with Tony Bennett, the one guarantee is this lady can diversify herself into just about any musical genre you can think of.
Come To Mama is simply too campy for my liking, although it does grow on you. I do like the jazzy 50s feel and appreciate The Supremes-style backing vocals, but I don’t think that will be enough to convince diehard Gaga fans to listen to the song more than once.
Hey Girl has a synth feeling that reminds me of any number of Motown hits. Think Stevie Wonder meets Lionel Richie meets Marvin Gaye, with The Supremes included for additional value. In-fact, add some Bee Gees for a little extra spice as well. Bottom line: I love this song!
Angel Down is simply gorgeous. It is a perfect composition. However, I much prefer the later edition subtitled (Work Tape), especially at the end of the song as I find the ending of this version is too abrupt. With this type of vocal driven ballad, I really want to sit peacefully at the end of the song as the vocal and musical elements decrease progressively to silence. It allows me to consider the song for its lyrical value as well as subjective interpretation. As it is the last song on the standard edition of the album, I would honestly recommend getting the deluxe version as it ends more peacefully. I also don’t feel the artificial pops and clicks towards the end of the song add any value.
Grigio Girls starts strangely as the artificial pops and clicks heard in Angel Down transfers to the beginning of this song and dissolves as the song progresses. It is obviously added for stylistic benefit, but while I don’t mind pops and clicks when I listen to my vinyl collection, I’m opposed to artificially adding them as I end up checking my cable connections, assuming connectivity problems. That all said, Grigio Girls is a good, but not great song. Something is missing in the chorus and I feel the song could be tighter, especially in the end with the vocal talk-over/laughing aspect.
Just Another Day is beatle-esque. I LOVE IT!
Angel Down (Work Tape) is the version that I feel should have made the final standard album. This version is rawer and more emotionally driven. It also ends the album far better as the music is gradually reduced. That said, I still believe that the ending should have been less rigid, but it would be boring if every song ended the same way. I guess I just like songs that gradually decrease in volume as they end.
Joanne is nothing short of an amazing album that I believe will go down as one of Gaga’s greatest. It is a little different to her other works, but if you don’t mind the diversity, there is something here for everyone. Joanne is a must own for my vinyl collection, but I can’t say that about Born This Way; sorry Elisa!