In the abstract, Lady Gaga is the last person you’d want to go down the pared-down, real-me, let’s-get-a-bit-country road. After all, the abstract is where Lady Gaga’s from. What business could she possibly have in the dusty, downtrodden ol’ town of Authenticity?
But don’t fear that stetson: though ‘Million Reasons’, co-written with country hitmaker Hillary Lindsey, served as potent, sky-clutching reminder of Gaga’s way with a bare-bones ballad, Gaga Americana is not the Nashville kind, nor the big-beards sort, but a schlocky, thrill-packed theme-park. When Gaga strips herself back, what’s underneath is just a more streamlined strangeness.
And though the gloriously daft ‘John Wayne’ is a raunchy Westworld robo-romp, ‘A-Yo’ is ‘Shake It Off’ Pt 2 and autobiographical opener ‘Diamond Heart’ is Gaga doing The Killers doing Springsteen, ‘Joanne’ is also as stylistically varied as ever. Beck collaboration ‘Dancing in Circles’ is a moody Latin number, while ‘Hey Girl’, a duet with Florence Welch, is a relatively subdued soul-funk slink and ‘Come to Mama’ a glammy showtune, but if the tracklist is wide-ranging, it’s admirably concise; a sensible move after the distracting pretension of ‘Artpop’’s pitch.
There is a real raw heart to ‘Joanne’, too: the title track, dedicated to the singer’s paternal aunt, who died of lupus before she was born. It’s a leavetaking song of great, simple beauty, more tenderly affecting than anything Gaga’s done before, showcasing the emotive power rather than the force of that great voice. The rest of the album too, rings with urges for us to take care of each other in a cruel world, most of all ‘Angel Down’, a song about the death of Trayvon Martin that also seems to allude to what she called, in her recent NME interview, “the toilet of the internet”: “I confess I am lost in the age of the social/On our knees, take a test/To be loving and grateful.” It’s a simple, warm and vital message from a high-concept pop star who’s reminded us that, if she’s definitely not like the rest of us underneath it all, she’s certainly all human.