The Uneven Return Of Old-School Lady Gaga

Chromatica revives the Lady Gaga the world fell in love with. The results are uneven, but it’s good to have her back.

“My name isn’t Alice,” Lady Gaga sings, with glam-theatrical fervor, in the opening track of her new album, Chromatica. “But I’ll keep looking for Wonderland.”

The sentiment sums up Gaga’s career so far: an unending quest for pop fantasy as she rifles through poses and personas. Throughout Chromatica, Gaga tells us she is a free woman, not your plastic doll; she’ll be your enigma; she’s like sour candy.

She’s always been, in drag parlance, something of a concept queen. Gaga churned out some of the best top 40 aughts bops, like “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.” A pop auteur, she ‘s been a creator of lush visuals and a songwriter with a (sometimes clichéd) message — about fame, and queerness, and being yourself.

And it worked for a long time, from the Fame era, to the elongated Fame Monster moment, through the Born This Way period. But that’s a hard lane to inhabit for a long time. After all, even Madonna and Beyoncé worked up to their big message eras. Rather than crafting a slow build, Gaga broke out by being too much — the gender rumors, the meat dress, the multilayered videos. She almost had to start de-escalating her stardom.

Gaga got off the top 40 hamster wheel with the Tony Bennett duets project Cheek to Cheek, and with 2016’s Joanne, she attempted to do a stripped-down personal record with a Gaga twist. Joanne was a kind of ’60s and ’70s rock record supposedly saying: “This is me.” But it was somewhat disappointing that concept queen Gaga couldn’t figure out a more original way to perform the personal turn that pop music had taken. Then came A Star Is Born, which revitalized Gaga’s stardom; she made room for the retro rock earnestness of Joanne, but was able to bring back the pop audience along with her.

It’s been four years since Joanne, and what feels like an eternity since 2013’s Artpop. “Stupid Love,” the first single and video of the Chromatica era, released last month, announced the return of big pop concept queen Gaga. The song’s shamelessly sing-along choruses were a return to form, and the video — featuring Gaga dancing amid a postapocalyptic Mad Max desert backdrop — provided an otherworldly context for her sounds.

With Chromatica, it’s as if the new Gaga took the lessons and confidence from building her own world in A Star Is Born, and her Enigma Vegas residency, and is ready to be unapologetically Gaga again, filtering her early electropop through ’90s house. The album could use more of Gaga’s originality, but it’s a testament to the unique lane she carved for herself that it feels like such a big event to have her back.

“Stupid Love” succeeded as a lead single in setting up the tone and world of Chromatica. But the song, Gaga’s first collaboration with famed producer Max Martin, also came off too much like an attempt to reintroduce old-school Gaga. It was as if they were trying to recapture the idea of craving toxicity from “Bad Romance,” but in an upbeat “Born This Way” mode. It’s fine, but never quite builds up to anything unique.

Chromatica itself starts strongly with “Alice.” The song captures the record’s house-inspired sound, its escapist themes of feeling untethered from the world (“Where's my body? I'm stuck in my mind”), all complemented by Gaga’s vocal theatrics, delivered with operatic flair. As she sings “Take me home,” you want to follow her down the rabbit hole.

“Rain on Me,” the Ariana Grande duet released as the second single, follows “Stupid Love,” and it’s a better song. It’s always exciting — not to mention rare — when two indisputable pop titans come together. Though it can easily go very wrong — or even worse, end up just bleh — Gaga has an amazing talent for diva collaborations, from “Telephone,” with Beyoncé, to the Christina Aguilera duet for “Do What U Want.” The song highlights Ariana’s delicate vocal melodies, punctuated by Gaga’s distorted vocals as butch-goddess demanding “Rain. On. Me,” it has enough intentional camp appeal to stand proudly in the house/dance pop rain canon alongside “It’s Raining Men.”

Rather than crafting a slow build, Gaga broke out by being too much — the gender rumors, the meat dress, the multilayered videos. She almost had to start de-escalating her stardom.

The collaborative savvy is also evident in the Blackpink duet, “Sour Candy.” On Twitter, Gaga credited her producers with turning the song into a K-pop banger. But it gets at the same girlish teen pop insolence she channeled so effectively on “Boys Boys Boys.” From the slinky verses (“So sweet, then I get a little angry”) by Blackpink’s Jennie & Lisa, to Gaga’s chorusing about being hard on the outside, the song feels fresh and is a perfect pop confection.

A big problem with the album overall is that there’s a lot of filler, with songs featuring tired lyrics and metaphors. From “1000 Doves” (“I am human, invisibly bleeding,” “each time / your love seems to save the day”) to the random and uninspired Elton John duet “Sine From Above” (“When I was young, I felt immortal / And not a day went by without a struggle”), too many of the lyrics are generic and don’t get at the kind of distinctiveness we know Gaga can provide. “Free Woman,” for instance, adds nothing to the endless theme of letting loose on the dance floor. “Replay” is a somewhat generic breakup tune.

Gaga’s talent for performance, whimsy, and great choruses saves some of the songs, like “Enigma,” and “Plastic Doll,” of which the latter has enough lyrical cleverness and drama (“Who's that girl, Malibu Gaga? / Looks so sad, what is this saga”) to stand out.

Chromatica also gives us glimpses of new aspects of Gaga’s songwriting. In “911,” she sings about taking meds, or popping the 911, in a kind of hypnotic monotone, and demands, "Come see me cry." Mental health has become a more prominent theme in pop music, but only Gaga could write a danceable bop about taking antipsychotic medication.

“Fun Tonight,” a song about a relationship the narrator is ambivalent about, feels moody and intimate in a different way than the rest of the album. The echoey synths put to mind Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” as the song soothingly invites you in, but then Gaga’s “Shallow”-like vocal volcanic eruption captures a distinct kind of sad euphoria. The album closes with “Babylon,” a house ode to decadence and gossip, not unlike Artpop’s “Donatella,” that will probably reignite the Madonna comparisons thanks to its Vogue-style spoken word. But, more than a decade into her career, Gaga is beyond comparisons.

One Gaga stan account on Twitter recently asked what her best single was before “Rain on Me.” Personally, my favorite was the last single from Artpop: “G.U.Y.” It was whimsical, and big, and random and ridiculous. The music video has cameos from Andy Cohen and Real Housewives and Michael Jackson and Gandhi; it features ’90s teen pop dance moves. Gaga said that 11-minute video was about her struggles in the capitalistic music industry. (In one scene, the Real Housewives rob a bank.)

But after that album and single, you got the sense that she felt she had to edit herself more to break through. And she might have been right. It was ultimately a piano ballad from Joanne,Million Reasons,” that became her big streaming hit. But I missed that other Gaga, the ambition and the high-minded pretension about pop. Whatever you think about her, Lady Gaga makes pop music feel exciting, like something is at stake. And Chromatica is a step forward for that Gaga, even as it looks back. ●

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