Album Review: Lady Gaga – Chromatica

[Interscope; 2020]

Lady Gaga has always been a great singer and pianist, but aside from a few big singles, namely “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face”, I have been mostly indifferent to her work over her career. In fact Joanne, Gaga’s controversial 2016 record where she (sort of) traded the synths for acoustic pop, was the first whole album of hers I enjoyed, and moreover, wanted to listen to.

On her sixth album, Chromatica, Gaga reverts to mainstream pop sounds, but it’s the kind of fun, smart, fizzy pop music that sometimes wins me over. Beyond all the talk of this album’s concept – the idea being that Chromatica is some other planet where Gaga has taken up residence as a middle finger to Earth – there are some really sturdy, solid, catchy pop songs here. The concept doesn’t even really matter, seeing as there is almost nothing to reveal it to you in the songs. What we get instead is better, as there are some surprisingly personal lyrics across the album, dealing with themes of loneliness, depression, mental health, self-worth, and the commodification of pop stars.

These lyrics pose an interesting contradiction, though, when thinking of this album critically. The themes they touch upon are revealing and strong, but too often the actual words used come off trite, or a little too silly. Sometimes, the words feel hemmed-in by Gaga’s habit of making it sound like she’s snapping them onto a syllabic grid, and must fit snugly, or else. There are times, though, where Gaga successfully marries the “too much” quality of her work with the honesty latent in the lyrics, and those instances are stunning.

This is especially true of the middle section, which holds the strongest, sharpest songs of the album, as well as some of its boldest ideas. “Free Woman” offers us a self-empowerment anthem we’ve all sort of heard before, but Gaga sells it with her moody melodies and strong vocals on the hook. “Fun Tonight” is fixed upon an expertly-delivered hook of “Maybe it’s time for us to say goodbye ’cause / I’m feelin’ the way that I’m feelin’, I’m feelin’ with you / I’m not having fun tonight,” Gaga singing with real weight to convey a self-awareness and self-preservation that can be so vital in times of crisis. The strongest song on the record, “911”, is about mental health, and relying upon medication to get us through our toughest times; “My biggest enemy is me / Pop a 9-1-1,” goes the coldly catchy chorus.

But too often, the lyrics get in Gaga’s way. Songs like “Stupid Love”, “Rain on Me”, and “1000 Doves” fall pretty flat emotionally, especially when held up against the stronger songs surrounding them. And the ideas spewed in the BLACKPINK-featuring “Sour Candy” add up to a lot of nothing, which is not aided by the fact that some of the melodies sound like a poor emulation of a Grimes song.

None of this is helped by the production, which wears over the course of the album’s 43 minutes. Chromatica is clearly inspired by 80s and 90s club and house music, which is all fine, but the relentlessness of the 4/4 beats and the build-ups and drops becomes a bit samey by record’s end, leading to a dull predictability.

It’s Gaga’s vocals that save the day much of the time, shining through the very snappy, sometimes sterile, and often-robotic instrumentals. Her singing is very strong throughout, adding weight and edge to songs that may have otherwise been unable to stand on their own, such as “Stupid Love” or “Sine From Above”, that latter of which also features a better-not-to-speak-of-it Elton John vocal. Gaga’s voice is even strong enough to transcend the purposefully robotic delivery of “911”, which sounds so much like electro pop band Freezepop that it can be a bit distracting.

At the finale of Chromatica she serves up the silly campiness in just the right way, with the fun, funny, and slightly ridiculous closing track “Babylon”. Yes, it sounds fully ribbed from Madonna’s “Vogue”, but don’t forget that Madonna herself ribbed it from the drag and ball culture of New York.

Lady Gaga could probably do well with paring down a bit, perhaps finding some weird way to meld the ethos of Joanne with the sleek electronics of Chromatica. She is a very talented pop songwriter and a strong vocalist, but sometimes her ideas sometimes get the best of her, and Chromatica is emblematic of that, in all its highs and lows.