Saturday, May 30, 2020

Review: Chromatica • Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga’s brand was founded on the outlandish. During her initial boom, she injected growth hormones into the idea of the frilly 21st century pop star: Her high-concept lyrics, music videos that rivaled established half-hour television series in runtime and plot, and overblown costumes distracted some from the underlying conventional talent. By the time she hit her stride, society had come to accept her as an ornate entertainer with higher ambitions than her peers. (Will anyone ever attempt something as ambitious as "Telephone" again? It’s been a decade, and nobody has put another prison break and mass poisoning to music yet.) Although she boasted a higher batting average than most, her unrestricted creativity channel meant she sometimes overshot her vision.

A few years into her career, the Gaga bubble burst: When tabloid celebrity culture began to fade, so did Gaga’s shock appeal. The campaign for her third studio record, ARTPOP, included a risqué duet with the already infamous R. Kelly, a performance piece that required a woman to vomit green liquid all over our favorite pop star’s chest on stage, and an odd nude howling ritual in the woods as a form of meditation – none of which stuck the landing with pop music audiences, who were then pivoting away from full-bodied dance-pop and into no-frills tropical house and trip-hop trends. When she retreated – first into jazz, then folk, then the Oscars – something was made clear: Although the woman is brilliant at damn near everything, society at large didn’t truly appreciate Gaga in her most natural state until it seemed to have been too late. Those fears can be put to rest with the release of Chromatica.

Her most streamlined release, Chromatica ushers Gaga’s pain to the dance floor via straightforward metaphor and gentrified Midwestern house music. From a poor relationship with psychotropic medication to media gossip, her turmoil doesn’t hijack the tracks: Uncomplicated production and crystalline melodies distract from the fact that pain is translated in a more transparent terms than we’re used to hearing from Gaga, even if she stumbles into a few tired tropes. "My name isn’t Alice, but I’ll keep looking for wonderland," she sings as the record’s opening line – and while it is probably the most offensively uninspired lyric here, the chic post-chorus is nearly infectious enough to forgive it. "Plastic Doll" provokes a similar conflict: She shouts (then howls) her way through a mounting melody line that deflects from a story line that Mattel would hate to hear rehashed again.

Gaga and her vocal collaborators provide personality to otherwise anonymous pulsations from producers BloodPop and Burns, who work hard to emulate the magic of both '90s house and Eurodance music with mostly successful results. Channeling the ferocious energy of disco-era belters, she uses her voice to stifle her pain: Her vocal delivery alone makes "Enigma" a record highlight, and album closer "Babylon" mandates she bring the attitude for its chanted chorus. (It must be noted that the robotic treatment below her main vocal line on "911" is also incredible.) Fellow pop stars Ariana Grande and Elton John, meanwhile, help unleash two of the record’s most potent tracks: “Rain on Me” is an absolute triumph of a warehouse rave banger, while John and Gaga allow their cries to be swallowed into thunderous instrumental breaks on “Sine From Above.”

Admittedly, Chromatica carries itself with less ambition than previous Lady Gaga records. Gaga scales back to dance music basics and smooths her cumulative level of service. While the record doesn’t enjoy any noticeable high spikes in quality as it plays out, there also isn’t a single unlikable song in the bunch. Ultimately, her approach works to the record’s benefit, as each song acts as a short burst in a never ending endorphin rush. "This is my dance floor I fought for," she asserts on "Free Woman" – and she doesn't leave her post for the entire 45 minutes of Chromatica. She seems ready to relinquish her worries, throw down some four-on-the-floor, and just dance once again, holding true to the promise she made to herself and her fans the very moment she hit the global stage.

Chromatica is available now under Interscope Records.

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