Lady Gaga – Joanne
Acknowledged as a failure by listeners who forgot her first two albums had tracks that sucked too, ARTPOP sounds tight three years after its release. I suspect the arena-ready electronics weren’t novel enough to mitigate Lady Gaga’s own muddled role playing. The Tony Bennett collaboration was stretch and not-a-stretch: jumping on Rod Stewart’s train a decade too late didn’t disappoint the parents of Gaga followers who liked this nice piano-playing young woman with the grey-haired Grammy-winning eminence on display at Target. After all, this demographic still buys CDs.
On social media the most fervent of her fans aren’t going gaga over Joanne. I understand. The first single “Perfect Illusion” plays like an unfinished single of the kind that Madonna used to denounce in the early days of internet album leaks. Why she and her label didn’t release the stupendous “A-Yo” or the self-referential “Dancing’ in Circles” will boggle minds as soon as Joannebegins its post-#1 chart tumble; at least they didn’t risk flop sweat and release “Come to Mama,” an indifferent valentine to devotees whose honking saxophone edges closer to the glory of a certain Gaga anthem. She must have skeptics like me in mind on opener “Diamond Heart.” “Some asshole broke me in,” she chants over kick drum, but she undercuts it with fades and drops familiar to Calvin Harris in 2009 and the Chainsmokers in 2016. Maybe that’s the point: reassurance for radio programmers, subversion of too subtle a kind for critics. She’s on firmer ground on “John Wayne,” a cock-crazy ode to a love junkie on a three-day bender; and on “Sinner’s Prayer,” which fuses Father John Misty contributions and a Blood Diamonds co-production into the kind of hybrid that Beyonce’s pulled off without a fuss.
That’s four songs, from solid to marvelous. Yet I mourn how Gaga has passed from Barbara Walters hot topic to den mama within the space of a year without the music evolving beyond her idea of Shakira-goes-dance. The title track of Born This Way presaged this ossifying: Gaga as public figure, future host of Human Rights Campaign benefits. Things get grim when she slows down, especially since her idea of emotive vocalizing is imitating Madonna’s Britsnarl from 2000’s Music; on the title track a stranded Moog buttresses a Gaga-ling vibrato that quavers in terror at lyrics about angels. She’s better when she imagines herself as a whirling dervish, a cloud of content-free enthusiasm: “I swirl around like I’m someone else,” she bellows in “Dancin’ in Circles.” The Gaga beloved by preteens at the dawn of the Obama era — the teens who dug “Bad Romance” and “Hair” and “Bloody Mary” — has plenty to show Drake about the honesty of being a poseur than Drake does about the mendacity of being sincere.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
In his third album in four years, Leonard Cohen has recorded variations on Wallace Stevens’ wintry final poems; he could have called any one of those records The Plain Sense of Things. I hesitate to call You Want It Darker his final album or obsessed with death because in the old days Cohen sang about getting head as if the Chelsea Hotel was a sarcophagus. With son Adam Cohen assisting Patrick Leonard on production and theoretical instruments — The violin in “Steer Your Way”; the arpeggio in “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” a faint echo of Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” — You Want It Darker shuffles and heaves to the singer’s will o’ the wisps of melody. I want it faster.