Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lady Gaga - Born This Way [album review]

* Released in May

Lady Gaga's amazingly quick ascension from complete nobody to the biggest music superstar on the planet happened in less than three years, a most impressive feat. Her detractors, a collective which grows exponentially with each of her increased successes, label her as an artist prone to style over substance, an argument which is hard to disagree with. Personally, I'm fascinated (and annoyed) by the fact that even offstage, she always appears to be "on", whether it's going out to dinner in Paris wearing just panties and a bra underneath an overcoat, or a similarly skimpy outfit along with a crazy pair of KISS-style boots as she descends the stairs of her private jet during a recent late winter Toronto concert stop (all of it, naturally, captured by the ubiquitous paparazzi). Such attention-seeking behavior (also flamboyantly on display in the visual component of her music), coupled with the fact that it's near impossible nowadays to escape her and her songs on the radio, a video channel, or an awards show, and it invites the risk of Gaga burnout. Apparently not yet, though, if the 1.1 million copies sold of Born This Way during its first week are any indication, helped by a promotion offered on Amazon.com that priced a download of her second full length album at a mere 99 cents. I'm not a fan of such radical marketing moves, however, as it continues a dangerous precedent established by Radiohead, who devised the "pay what you want" experiment a few years ago, and only reinforces the ongoing devaluation of music (read an interesting article here on Hollywood Reporter.com about the waves the 99 cent sale created in the music biz).

Okay, so cult of personality aspect aside, does her actual music validate all the attention? Not quite. Born This Way has many solid moments, but ultimately suffers from an appalling lack of nuance. Of the album's fourteen tracks, eleven of them essentially employ the same four-on-the-floor type of drum beat that occasionally throws in a slight tempo change. Those bass drum-heavy beats, ready-made for the dance floor, are mixed with a heavy array of synthesizers and overproduction, which brings a wearying interchangeableness to the material. The only song that dramatically deviates from the formula is "Yoü And I" (note the inexplicable umlaut), which numerous reviews have bafflingly labelled as a country song, even though it's nothing of the sort. Perhaps they're confused by the fact the track is produced by Mutt Lange, Shania Twain's philandering ex-husband (which still doesn't explain the "country" label, since Twain is actually more of a pop artist than a country one). The song sounds like a second-rate Twain song, frankly, as it samples the drums from Queen's "We Will Rock You" and even gets Queen guitarist Brian May to make an appearance. It's one of the many oddball songs on an album where Gaga has the crazy meter cranked high into the red zone. Take that ludicrous album cover for example. When the image was first released I thought it was a joke, but nope, it's just another example of her kooky artistic decisions. Born This Way is also loaded with weirdness in the departments of themes and lyrics . "Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)" is lyrically as bad as the title would suggest ("We can be strong, we can be strong/Follow that unicorn on the road to love"), ditto for "Marry The Night" ("I'm gonna marry the night/I'm gonna burn a hole in the road/I'm gonna marry the night/Leave nothing on these streets to explode"), and "Hair" ("I've had enough, this is my prayer/That I'll die living just as free as my hair/And I want you to know, I am my hair"). "Scheiße" opens with Lady Gaga reciting in a German accent, "I don't speak German, but I can if you like...owwww!", before speaking a couple of lines in actual German, a refrain that she repeats numerous times throughout the song. And I have no idea what she's referring to when she calls herself a government hooker in a song with the same name. When she's not trying to trip the listener up with her cryptic wordplay, the other recurring lyrical thread throughout the album finds her trumpeting the personal empowerment of underdogs and outcasts, a theme which gets gratingly overdone. Lady Gaga also borrows liberally from that other once-blonde provocateur, Madonna, whether it's musically (the much-discussed "Express Yourself"/"Born This Way" comparison) or when it comes to recycling Madonna's Catholic guilt themes, as she does on "Judas" and "Bloody Mary".

Weirdness may abound on Born This Way, but the eccentric pop star does churn out a respectable amount of catchy music over the length of its one hour running time, even if the best songs are anthems with an overly deliberate earnestness. The aforementioned "Marry The Night", "Hair", and "Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)" rise above their idiotic lyrical content to succeed as first-rate dance-electro-pop, "Bad Kids" injects a little of Gaga's metal/hard rock influence with some heavier guitars, and the title track is well executed (although everyone's heard enough of it now to last their lifetimes). My favourite track, "The Edge Of Glory", shamelessly pays homage to cheesy 80's pop and sounds like it could have been on the soundtrack to Top Gun. It features one of (if not) the last recordings of late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, although I personally think the sax sounds a little out of place on the song.

Anyone who's seen one of Lady Gaga's concerts or some of her television appearances knows that she's capable of dialling down the bombast and ably pulling off a number with just her and a piano, which she plays quite well. Hopefully, some of that subtlety she's shown in those moments will make its way onto her next album and give her recorded work a few extra dimensions.

Rating: ★★★★

3 comments:

  1. She's a freak, I grant you but still luv the tunes.

    Interesting take on "You And I". Didn't know Bryan May was playing on it!!

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  2. MY God Drew .... did you buy this shit? That 99 cents could of bought you a newspaper. I suppose CC's (Clemons, not Deville) appearance justified it for you. For her total lack of successful aesthetics and over-reliance on shock, she proves herself to be quite talentless!

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  3. Lol...so how do you really feel?

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