"I might not be flawless, but at least I've got a diamond heart," Gaga howls during the chorus of "Diamond Heart," the first song on Joanne. It's a lyric that succinctly captures the failures and triumphs of the album — Gaga's fifth since she emerged fully-formed from the sea-foam like a disco Aphrodite in 2009.
Gaga has always maintained the ability to inhabit a new persona while keeping some core characteristics: she's the misunderstood rascal and the bon vivant party girl. She's always "Mother Monster," and Joanne is no exception. However, as much as she's billed the album as an earnest experiment in baring her soul, it somehow feels like one of her most inauthentic offerings. She seems far less comfortable trying to be herself than she has playing one of her many characters from her past.
Each era of Gaga fame has brought a persona suited to the aspect of fame she's wanted to explore: the ingenue tasting fame for the first time (The Fame), the rock star catapulted into the maelstrom of fame (The Fame Monster), the artist shouldered with the responsibilities of fame (Born This Way) and the artist who is commenting on her own fame (Artpop). With Gaga herself seemingly hungover from this fame binge, Joanne's persona seems exhausted and unavailable for comment.
Of course, she has a lot of uncomfortable questions to answer from a PR perspective. Gaga is coming off the heels of Artpop, which underwhelmed commercially and was largely viewed as a creative misfire. On that album Gaga confused throwing ideas into the cauldron with having a clear vision, and the album ended up overstuffed.
Joanne's songs are leaner. They present tunes that have given room to breathe away from extra bells and whistles, but there's still little of a clear artistic vision behind the music. The party girl persona is at work on tracks like the energetic "A-Yo," which stands above most of the record in terms of fun and quality. "I can't wait to rev you up, Faster than you can say 'Ferrari,'" she sings in one of the album's few moments of glee.
"A-Yo" works where other tracks like "Dancin' in Circles" fail. It's sense of fun is free from self-consciousness, its pure abandon makes it an easy listen. However, for too much of the album, Gaga comes off as paralyzed with the fear of expectation.
Joanne the persona and Germonotta the person work together best on the album's title track, which works as both a "come to Jesus" tune about her own career's misdirections and a personal ballad to entering her thirties. But, "Joanne," like so much of the album, feels full-throated and half-hearted.
"Girl, where do you think you're going?" she asks over and over in the song's chorus. But, rather than move into some moment of pathos or enlightenment, she answers her own question with a shrug, saying, "I know where you're going and you're just moving on." It essentially forces the listener to do the same, which doesn't seem the best way to secure the "hit record" she told Rolling Stone she was aiming to release.
Much of the middle of the album exposes how uncomfortable Gaga feels in her new persona. "John Wayne," feels like a rehashed version of Miley Cyrus's "4x4" from Bangerz, while "Dancin' in Circles" sounds like a song Ace of Base might have passed on in 1992.
Additionally, while sometimes a lead single makes more sense once you hear the full album, that's not the case with "Perfect Illusion," which is even more jarring when heard in the middle of Joanne.
Joanne's back half begins to suffer from too-similar-sounding tracks like "Million Reasons" and "Sinner's Prayer," which are both honest, spiritual conversations that remind the listener just how much Gaga is working through questions of religion and spirituality. And while "Come to Mama" is a fun blip on the album's second-half slog, with a retro girl-group feel, the lyrics are too full of platitudes and kumbayas to stir any real emotions.
Joanne comes off as averse to fame, or even just hungover from it. Gaga's retreat into the personal for Joanne — named not only after herself, but her late aunt — makes complete sense and would resonate more if it had stronger lyrics.
Gaga may have indulged her worst theatrical impulses and lacked an editor on Artpop, but it was still a supersonic thud with some solid hooks. While Joanne attempts to chart a new sonic course for Gaga, in some ways her songwriting skills have not made the journey with her. But, maybe hooks just aren't her thing anymore. Maybe, like she says in "Joanne," she's just had to move on, and we'd be willing to go with her — if she provided a direction.