If you’re of my generation, the career arc of Lady Gaga reads like pop culture legend. If you were looking to attribute the dominance of pop music over other genres during my adolescence to a single name, it would have to be Lady Gaga. While the ’00s were all post-grunge, bling rap, pop-punk and RnB, as soon as 2009 hit, the arrival on the scene of one Lady Gaga made it clear that decadent club anthems were the wave of the next few years. Her 2008 debut album The Fame and its earth-shaking follow-up The Fame Monster with its extravagantly tasteless music videos returned pop music to the status of spectacle.
After this though, Gaga started to fade into the background, her material got darker, exorcising rape culture, body image and homophobia through inspirational singalong choruses, her own image became the predominating theme. More than anything though, the songs on albums like Artpop and Born This Way, though okay, just weren’t as good or memorable as The Fame Monster.
She did continue to evolve and even got good again with her 2016 album Joanne, which in its own way proved almost as influential as The Fame Monster, setting a trend for a country-pop revival over the next few years. Though it was seen as a disappointment by many, since it ditched so much of the head-turning extravagance of her earlier material, the hill I will die on is that Joanne is Lady Gaga’s best album to date. It doesn’t help the album’s reputation that the three weakest songs were chosen as singles, but “Sinner’s Prayer,” “Dancing in Circles,” “Hey Girl” and “Come to Mama” could easily go toe-to-toe with classic Gaga tracks “Bad Romance,” “Alejandro,” “Monster” or “Teeth.”
After knocking it out of the park in her detour into film, Gaga now returns to album mode and presents her first solo album in four years. It was an exciting moment back in February (God, remember February, when coronavirus was a punchline about beer?) clicking play on the “Stupid Love” music video and waiting with baited breath to see what direction Gaga would be taking us in.
The bold, disco dance style of the track wasn’t entirely unexpected; she was far from the only artist to have taken us in such a direction of late, with Doja Cat, Dua Lipa and even The Weeknd delivering chain blasts of glossy new-wave synthpop. It was to some degree expected; the lyrics were big and dumb, the video had the outrageous outfits and dorky dance moves, and the song had hooks like Hellraiser, with Gaga’s powerful vocals spinning carefree through decorously chugging, whirling synths.
The song also put forward the album’s mission statement effectively: a gut-bustingly sincere appeal for love and joy in the face of a world utterly determined to allow none. The lyrics here are stupidly positive, but there’s a tension running throughout the album, often unspoken but alluded to as the elephant in the room: “this moment’s hijacked my plans.”
This is the energy of the project, a taut cycle of emotional repression and purgation expressed through cluttered, angst-ridden grooves. It’s freewheeling and cathartic, but it’s hard to buy into that these days, and that feeling, where optimism is continually frustrated, is something Chromatica, perhaps accidentally, captures powerfully.
The album was originally slated to be released early in April but—perhaps overestimating the ability of the United States to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic—the album was pushed back to allow better scope for touring. We’re still a long way off of that and the room for this sort of earnest optimism is growing narrower by the day. I think the album might’ve fared better with the early release date.
There are some darker moments on Chromatica that feel timelier. “Replay” is a cathartic procession of post-traumatic-stress and “911,” though brief, is one of the most intimate and potent tracks with lyrics lamenting her own tendencies towards panic and psychosis. These themes are what define the album’s strengths, working through pain and torment, dancing through the heart of darkness, and possibly out the other side into a utopia of love.
Gaga has tended to use features sparingly, often selecting her collaborators very wisely. The big duet here is with Ariana Grande on the propulsive dance-away-the-pain splendour of “Rain on Me.” The bridge on that track is a sticking point for me, but Gaga and Grande are a dynamic duo, and the song is just a powerhouse of energy—it hits harder and harder each time I return to it. I loved the moody, nocturnal trap soul vibes of Thank U Next, but Grande does so well on this I’d love to hear more disco material from her.
The other big features are Korean pop group BLACKPINK, who support Gaga on the album’s third single “Sour Candy,” delivering a slinky, seductive verse and chorus, and Elton John, who adds his booming vocals to “Sine From Above,” in which Gaga explores everything music has meant to her, describing her discovery of music as a divine revelation. Like Grande, John has terrific chemistry with Gaga, giving a tremendous performance, and the funky noise breakdown on the outro is one of the boldest and best moments on the album.
Another highlight is the opening track proper “Alice,” a head-bopping house song with an “oh-m-mother” refrain very reminiscent of The Fame Monster era and a palatial chorus. The song is let down by another of the album’s weak spoken-word bridges, which are probably Chromatica’s Achilles heel overall, alongside some rather vague and underwritten lyrics, but it’s still a potent moment.
As far as duds go in the track listing, I think a few of the tracks here—“Enigma,” “Plastic Doll” and the underwhelming closer “Babylon”—feel like a thematic step backward for Gaga. These are subjects we’ve heard her tackle so many times before on songs like “Paparazzi” and “Applause” and she’s not bringing much in the way of a new spin or approach here.
Is she really the subject of much toxic tabloid gossip or image-shaming these days? I know there were rumours about her and Bradley Cooper, who apparently gave such convincing performances as lovers that some people thought there was something in it, but did anyone really take that seriously? Why not just take it as a compliment and laugh it off? These moments just feel like an unnecessary slide backwards, into the least interesting, most image-obsessed period of her music career, and the instrumental backing is more Madonna worship.
“Free Woman” is also a rather shallow post-breakup empowerment song, one of the worst offenders as far as the lyrics being unrefined in a way that isn’t all that endearing. It also has one of the album’s more generic Eurodance instrumentals.
The album is broken up by brief orchestral interludes “Chromatica” I, II and III. The classical elements of “Chromatica II” deliver one of the most spine-tingling moments as they transition perfectly into the powerful beats of “911.” These moments are welcome breathing room between the claustrophobic, alien dancefloor vibes and offer some additional structure to what is probably the most cohesive and coherent Gaga tracklist.
Even if some of the older formulas feel outplayed, or the songwriting undernourished, there’s an undeniable decadent appeal to Chromatica. The combination of Gaga’s often corny torment with her glossy production values and ever captivating vocal presence make this album a heady and dynamic experience.