The simile “like a moth to a flame” is criminally overused these days. Sure, we’re all drawn to things that tempt us — forces that stick out like some rosy beacon in an otherwise dark night — and sometimes we surrender to them. But a true case of moth-to-flame syndrome is rare. And beautiful. And you can feel the heat when it happens.
Lady Gaga is drawn to her piano like a moth to a flame. Recall the years of bubbly, brilliant pop: the 2009-onward Renaissance of meat dresses, disco sticks and disconnected telephones. Amid this techno blitzkrieg, Gaga never sacrificed those crystalline pipes, of course, and every chance she got she had a piano by her side.
Arguably her strongest performance, the 2009 VMA rendition of “Paparazzi,” went down in award show history for eye blood, chest blood and blood, well, everywhere. Despite the hoopla, Gaga found time to visit her piano on stage left for the second verse, slam a few keys, then sashay her merry way. And so it goes for nearly every SNL performance since, every concert and acoustic set. The New York doll tickles the ivories. It’s just what she does.
Joanne is an album of this stripped-down flame-chasing. Not so much a return to form (2013’s ARTPOP took the ostentatious quirk as far as it could go), the pink suede LP unfolds instead like a smooth slide into some dive bar in Americana girl-land. It’s got a mournful core filled with lost loves — RIP Taylor Kinney — yet it fights with a certain gritty optimism, as Gaga leans on friends like Florence Welch (“Hey Girl”) and fermented grapes (“Grigio Girls”) for strength.
An introspective search for that ineffable oomph, Joanne starts off right with the tingly “Diamond Heart.” Gaga hits her growl right away, and the drums start: “I might not be flawless, but you know I gotta diamond heart.” It’s a driving number with powerful hopefulness, which also seeps into the sing-song poignancy of “Joanne,” the title track. She yawps notes of liquid silver in this ode to herself (Gaga’s birth name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) and her deceased aunt, whom she considers a major influence. “Girl,” she sings, “where do you think you’re going?”
Well, the girl’s dancing “Coyote Ugly”-style on the scratchy countertops of some Mississippi pub on tunes like “John Wayne” and “Dancin’ in Circles.” Both are a frenzy of sexual energy. The first is a catcall to all the badass men in the world who think they can handle Gaga’s cowboy hat and/or libido. The second is one of the album’s best: a zany, almost Rasta-like jam that definitely has its place in the Songs About Masturbation canon. It’s also thrillingly reminiscent of The Fame Monster’s “So Happy I Could Die,” and for a little bit, it feels like we’re getting the old Gaga back — and an even better one, at that.
“Grigio Girls” keeps the spirit alive with a cute chorus (“All the Pinot, Pinot Grigio girls / Pour your heart out / Watch your blues turn gold”). “Hey Girl” with Florence Welch is a stellar, soulful duet that feels just as fun and kitschy as the rest, though it is seared with some sadness, some howling. “Million Reasons” addresses this grief directly. It's almost country-like in its delivery: strong “r”s, repetition and attitude. But it’s a deftly restrained twang, evident on “Come To Mama” and “Sinner’s Prayer,” too. Toby Keith ain’t that welcome in Gagatown.
It’s easy to forget about the cathartic “Angel Down;” the ballad strove for anthemic but got its less-hot cousin, aimlessness. Joanne’s promotional singles also plummet into nowhere land: “AYO” is a schmaltzy, almost Disney Channel-esque pop tune lacking the fine-wine finesse brought about by Gaga’s many years in the business. “Perfect Illusion” is equally as formulaic — it builds, but it builds modern songwriting cliché after cliché. This is the first time producer Mark Ronson has let our ears down, it seems.
But the final song, “Just Another Day,” turns it around. Sure, it’s a little cheesy, but Gaga’s been a little cheesy all along — a self-aware flair for dramatics that even permeates her songs about the mundanity of everyday life. “Just Another Day” is just another day. But that’s a damn good day if we have Gaga back by the piano churning out songs again, belting red velvet melodies that emit the warmth that first drew us to her — our tricky, inextinguishable flame of a woman.