If you love Lady GaGa, you’ll love this review. If you don’t like Lady GaGa, I’d recommend that you turn around in your seat or leave the auditorium for the next five minutes because I’m about to lay down some serious praise for Mother Monster.
Artist: Lady GaGa
Album: Born This Way
Genre: Pop, dance, electronic, GaGa
Rating: 9 out of 10 / A
(Note: this review is based on the extended version of the album. Don’t call it “deluxe”…GaGa doesn’t like that.)
Second albums are tricky things, especially when your first album produced several worldwide smash hits. Things get even trickier when you’re one of the most visible pop artists working today. The potential for sabotage is tremendously high, and it takes an amazing amount of precision and skill to hit your target. If anyone could do it, it would be Lady GaGa, and oh does she succeed in the most spectacular ways.
Born This Way represents the next step in a distinct and clear evolutionary path for GaGa. Her debut album, The Fame was a well-crafted dance/pop album with occasional glimpses of the GaGa we know today, Our Lady of Meat Dresses. Slightly off-beat, but still firmly mainstream. The Fame Monster, the follow-up “extension” of that album, was a clear step up, with denser production, bigger vocals, and deeper lyrics. Born This Way continues the trend, and it sounds like GaGa is finally coming into her own in a very real way. More than anything else that she’s done so far, this sounds closest to what GaGa really wants to do now that she’s established herself and has more freedom to explore her muse.
The album is, from the first to the last second, a balls-to-the-wall, hammering piece of musical production. Even the quieter moments are full of a solid, assured sound. The beats are heavy, the sound beds are thick and textured, and the synths are a buffet of deliciousness. Working primarily with frequent collaborator RedOne as well as Fernando Garibay and DJ White Shadow, GaGa has created songs that demand repeat listens if only to pick out the many almost-hidden accents and flourishes in the stereo field. The album shifts and changes with almost every song, constantly re-working the dark-to-light equation and using a dizzying array of sounds and instruments from guitars to horns to strings. As far as GaGa’s concerned, the 80s never died, they just set up shop next door to her studio.
On top of that, GaGa’s vocals are some of the most confident she’s recorded, strong and full, even in her thinner head voice, with GaGa herself taking on every role from a bar-room diva to a Eurotrash automaton to a Rosemary Clooney from the future. One one track, she’s the leader of a groovy girl group, on the next she’s opening a song with a Nina Hagen-worthy faux-opera cabaret voice. She shifts easily between tones and styles, sometimes in the same song, providing most of the background herself in just as varied ways.
GaGa’s first album focused primarily on the cost of fame, as well as our desire for it regardless of the price. She still focuses on that with Fame Monster, but began to personalize the lyrics more. Born This Way manages to be both completely personal as well as possessing an almost universal scope. The focus is away from fame and glamour and is focused almost entirely on identity: losing it, finding it, regaining it, and wondering what it is in the first place. While some songs contain highly specific references to her own life, the spirit and message of the song is intended for everyone. The songs are rarely obtuse, and in fact, they’re completely sincere. The album is ridiculously big and propulsive in the most appealing, unashamed way, even including saxophone solos completely without irony. It’s refreshing to listen to an album that doesn’t constantly wink at the audience or treat listeners like a commodity.
The individual tracks are, with one or two exceptions, a collection of catchy, well-crafted dance bangers that could only briefly be considered pop songs in the fact that they have hooks and a verse/chorus structure. Opening “Marry The Night” starts out quiet, but soon explodes into a speed-racing, organ-backed neo-New Wave gem. Singles “Born This Way” and “Judas” still impact the ear, but they’re overshadowed by the third promotional single, closing track “The Edge Of Glory.” An anime theme re-imagined by Jem and the Holograms and dedicated to everybody who’s ever needed hope for tomorrow, it’s a massive, gleaming anthem that deserves to be played at top volume. Its lead-in is the album’s most acoustic number, the Elton John-flavored piano rocker “You And I”, and it’s the only song that rivals the “Edge Of Glory” vocals for sheer power.
Even slower songs still contain a distinct thump and weight, like “Black Jesus/Amen Fashion” and “Bloody Mary.” GaGa also explores darker tones than she has previously, and these songs are some of the absolutely best moments on the album. “Heavy Metal Lover” is sleazy in all the best ways, with a Benassi back and Peaches-esque lyrics. “Government Hooker” flirts with atonality and a creepy/sexy Deutsch-tronica, tossing in everything from beep-beep-boop Casio keyboard drums to references to John F. Kennedy. The absolute highlight, though, is the quasi-industrial “Scheiße”, which contains a ridiculously infectious chorus, a repeated German rap, and male background vocals that could have been lifted straight from a Europop song from 1986. The Fernando Garibay remix form the 2nd disc, previously featured at a Mugler fashion show, is a 2 a. m. club classic waiting to happen.
If a lot of Born This Way sounds familiar, that’s intentional. GaGa has taken virtually every 80s artist you can think of and combined them into one album: Whitney Houston, Sandra, Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Nicks, and even (yes) Madonna. Accusations that GaGa has ripped off Madonna are common, usually among people disinclined to GaGa’s music in the first place. To be sure, GaGa is quickly replacing Madonna as the go-to gay pop icon, but to claim that GaGa has ripped her off is disingenuous. As much as “Born This Way” might sound like “Express Yourself” (and it’s rather tenuous in the first place), it is entirely its own creation. GaGa is a stronger writer than Madonna, for one, and she has a much stronger voice. Madonna hit her vocal peak with Ray Of Light, when the Evita voice lessons combined beautifully with a highly personal album. However, the mercenary and toss-away Hard Candy was recorded almost entirely within Madonna’s nasal cavity. For better or worse, GaGa is quickly showing up her progenitor.
One other aspect where Madonna and GaGa are similar is their use of religious imagery. While Madonna made headlines (and millions) with “Like A Prayer” and juxtaposing a crucifix with lace lingerie, GaGa comes at it from a more spiritual angle. That’s not to say Madonna is not religious or sincere, however. Born This Way is full of references to Jesus, Judas, Mary, and most of all, a personal spirituality informed more by self-reflection than dogma. Religious conservatives often attack GaGa’s music as sinful, but the lyrics actually contain a clear reverence for GaGa’s spiritual beliefs. However, even when she’s talking about Christian iconography, GaGa makes them seem less like part of an established religion and more like universal metaphors and icons that just happen to be part of a particular belief system.
Aside from a handful of not-quite-as-strong tracks (it’s inaccurate to call them “weak”) like “Bad Kids,” GaGa has delivered a massive, gorgeously-produced sonic treasure. Is it the “best album of the decade” that she promised fans? Probably not. Is it one of the best albums of the year? Without a doubt. This album likely won’t win you over if you already don’t like GaGa, but it’s a confident, assertive, audacious expression of GaGa’s personality. Like her or not, GaGa is here to stay, and Born This Way is going to ensure that it happens. And if you don’t like it, follow GaGa’s advice and wear an ear condom next time.