Somewhere, there’s a shriveled, dried-up husk of what used to be Lady Gaga. That’s because every bit of her creativity, talent, and—more than anything else — her ambition has been poured into giving birth to her new album, “Born This Way,” out May 23.
Every nook and cranny, every note of the 14-track “Born This Way” feels like it was carefully curated and crafted from Lady Gaga’s DNA in some special laboratory where even the lowest level technicians wear Alexander McQueen lab coats and teeter on mile-high, jewel-encrusted platform shoes.
Before we delve into some of the individual tracks, a few thoughts about “Born This Way” as a whole. It is Lady Gaga’s most challenging work yet. As has often been said of her before, she’s a performance artist masquerading as a pop act. Each song operates on multiple levels. Every listen brings a different dimension and more is revealed. Even the seemingly throw-away track like “Government Hooker” takes on more heft.
“Born This Way” is at its core a dance album, and a sonically beautiful one at that. Other genres flit in and out, from pop, rock, metal and electro to industrial and even opera, but the unifying thread that ties it all together has BPM embroidered on it. Songs like opener “Marry The Night” start out slowly before breaking wide open into full-on twirlers.
Lady Gaga seems almost pathologically driven to go full-throttle 100% of every 24/7. Her sweat and blood are on every track here. Every song feels like it was a hard delivery and some almost drown under the pretension and weight. There’s nothing on here other than the title track, which has deservedly become a self-acceptance anthem for the ages, that approaches the light-heartedness of “Just Dance” and that’s a shame. Even “U & I,” the first song that Lady Gaga previewed from the album way back in summer 2010 starts like a great Elton John-style, barrel-house piano-based rocker, but then becomes something much heavier. I would have gladly traded some of the technical proficiency for some flat out fun.
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At the crux of it, there’s something almost clinical about the precision of “Born This Way.” This is an odd statement to make, but other than knowing that she is an absolute workaholic and perfectionist, I’m not sure I know any more about Lady Gaga than I did going into “Born This Way.” That’s fine on the industrial cuts like the cascading “Government Hooker” or trance-y, insinuating“Schiße,” and oddly hypnotic “Heavy Mental Lover,” but not for the many other cuts that I know should be making me feel something, but don’t. And despite the obvious heart and soul that she pumped into it, there’s a strange emptiness to it all. Perhaps that’s because she’s too busy making sure the rest of us are all okay. The lyrics of several of songs here, such as “Born This Way” and “Bad Kids” are little more than bromides meant to reassure us Little Monsters that we are fine and are loved —if by no one else, than at least by Lady Gaga— just the way we are.
Between the beats, “Born This Way” is positively drenched in ‘70s and ‘80s pop rock. Though there have been touches of the Abba influence on her previous two albums, it is much more present here, on both the string-laden “Americano,” which crosses “West Side Story” with a cheesy spaghetti commercial and Abba’s “Super Trouper,” and on the mid-tempo “Bloody Mary,” which sounds like an outtake from the Broadway play “Chess” (written by Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus withTim Rice). Forget the Madonna comparisons; vocally Lady Gaga resembles ‘80s pop rocker Laura Branigan more and more with every song. Crack open the chorus of “Highway Unicorn (Road 2 Love)” and you’ll find the blueprint of Branigan’s 1983 hit “Gloria.” “The Edge of Glory," which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, is one of the best songs Pat Benetar never recorded (well, maybe Quarterflash, given the Clarence Clemon’s sax solo). The guitar riffs on “Electric Chapel” are straight out of Billy Idol’s songbook (and disregard what I said about Madonna, Gaga’s vocal delivery on the verses here is 100% Madge on a very, very good day).
But back to the choruses. Lady Gaga knows how to write one with her eyes closed. The problem is she tends to write the same one over and over. The electro-stomp of “Judas” (which is a better song than its weak chart position would indicate) gives way to a chorus that blends the best of “Bad Romance” and “Paparazzi.” Same with “Hair.” Speaking of, it’s probably time to retire the stutter-step she so dearly loves on both “Hair” and “Judas.”
There’s a ferocity and commitment to Lady Gaga’s performance here that’s undeniable. So many artists can’t capture the energy of their live performances in a studio, but she and her producers, including RedOne and Fernando Garibay, have accomplished that difficult feat. I admire “Born This Way” greatly, I just wish I liked it more.
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