May 17, 2011
Album Review: Lady Gaga, 'Born This Way'
Gaga doesn’t know when to hold back – and it’s a damn good thing
8 / 10
‘Hype’ is a disgusting word. But when an album, which was a self-declared phenomenon before it was even an album, appears to be an experiment in hype itself, it becomes an unavoidable part of the conversation. There’s been a suspicion in the epic run-up to the release of Lady Gaga's second-and-a-half album that she’s just been being deliberately ridiculous just to piss people off. But then, having a go at a pop star for being ridiculous is in itself as ridiculous as having a go at a brain surgeon for being too hung up on all the neurosurgery.
There’s another possibility here though. In our man Peter Robinson’s (rather amazing) cover feature the other week, she expressed genuine surprise that people found ‘Born This Way’ the song something of an ‘Express Yourself’ parody. The suggestion actually moved her to tears. It’s in the nature of artists to miss the blindingly obvious about their own work.
But for the entire world to have the exact same instantaneous reaction, to the point where the words ‘Express Yourself’ began trending on Twitter, suggests that comparison holds water. You’d think somebody – somebody – in her team could have noticed. It’s just possible that Gaga is now such a powerful entity that everybody was just too scared of losing their jobs to point it out.
It would certainly bear out the chain of events that led to that appalling, badly-photoshopped mess of a cover image getting signed off. And if that’s the case then we really are in new territory for mainstream pop music, where somebody at the absolute peak of commercial heaviosity is able to operate with the artistic imperative of a David Bowie without an iota of outside interference. What you definitely cannot fault about this album is the scale of its artistic ambition.
One thing that much-debated 'Born This Way' album cover does get right is the record’s obsession with the fusion of flesh and metal. As if Gaga, having already (in her own head at least) fused herself with her fanbase to create a singular entity, she wants to weld physically to her synthesisers as if to create one all-powerful dreadnought of self-empowerment. For the most part this is one relentless torrent of heavy-metal-rave-pop. At the very least it’s a triumph in sound engineering.
‘Hair’ is an empowerment anthem using the simple image of the wind blowing through a person’s hair to illuminate the album’s Love-Yourself-And-Let-It-All-Hang-Out message way more effectively than the title track. It trumps it once again by being quite the gayest thing you will ever hear for a long time. On the same tip is ‘Bad Kids’, a homage to the NYC club kids era, hammering home the freak message to the Little Monsters, but with a chorus that is adorable instantly and forever.
‘Bloody Mary’ is a serene flipside to ‘Judas’ this time using Ms Magdalene to do much the same job, as dainty plucked strings careen around filthy beats to create something weirdly graceful. And ‘Americano’, a Hispanic upgrade of ‘Alejandro’ which riffs on both Evita and Santa Esmerelda’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, succeeds because it is so colourfully deranged. Elsewhere the sci-fi goth night-stalk ‘Electric Chapel’ perhaps nails the record’s blood-and-chrome aesthetics most effectively of all.
Things get rather knottier when the beats drop heavier. ‘Schei?e’, which channels Miss Kittin doing a rave take on Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ strides into a commanding pop song and comes out a triumph. ‘Government Hooker’ drops down into freeform industrial techno impressively early on in the tracklist, but there’s scant evidence of any real political message in lines like “Put your hands on me, John F Kennedy”. And ‘Heavy Metal Lover’s staccato filth-fest is impressively murky but the relentless smut ends up sounding daft. The ostentatious ‘Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)’ aims for some kind of weird chamber-rave-metal-concerto yet comes out a total mess.
But then at the end, something spectacular happens. Skynet is given a rest and it emerges again that when Gaga does do pure emotion, she does it exceptionally well. ‘You And I’ is a quite epic exercise in futurist honky-tonk, apparently directed to a lesbian lover or a drag queen. And finally, the gleaming ‘The Edge Of Glory’ (apparently a love song to her late grandfather, yet with a romantic twist) finds her dancing “On the edge of something final we call life tonight” in the most ecstatic pop serenade this woman has ever come up with.
That beautiful simplicity reminds us that Lady Gaga can be guilty of trying too hard. But do you really think that’s wrong? ‘Born This Way’ doesn’t get everything right. It’s not the clarion to the dispossessed that it thinks it is. And after pushing so hard in this direction, she should probably strip it back to just her and a piano next time if she really wants to shock. Because rather than an exercise in hype, what ‘Born This Way’ really is an exercise in the pushing of everything to its ultimate degree. And for all the black, white and silver, it passes that test with flying colours. Dan Martin
'The Edge Of Glory'
Lady Gaga, ‘Born This Way’ - our track by track guide
50 incredibly geeky facts about Lady Gaga
More on Lady Gaga
To read all our reviews first - days before they appear online - check out NME magazine, on sale every Wednesday
- Previous Track Review: This Week's Singles Reviewed - 16/05/11
- Next Track Review: 10 Tracks You Have To Hear This Week