The first four minutes of Stefani Germanotta’s third album proper are completely fascinating. ‘Aura’, this set’s opener, manages to be a multitude of songs at once, jumping from nosebleed bass to (Middle) Eastern-coloured tones, a Spaghetti Western monologue to a stars-bound middle-eight, from quite-deliberately provocative talk of slavery and the meaning of the burqa to mindless cosmic love waffle. “Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?” Lady Gaga asks us. Sure. A little of the real would go a long way after the smoke and mirrors defining her career to date.
But Gaga keeps us guessing – the question was rhetorical, as the superstar proceeds to get tangled up in Greek mythology masquerading as modern dance-pop on ‘Venus’, rather than open herself up in a manner perceivable as sincere. The track is inspired by Botticelli’s The Birth Of Venus, like the album’s Jeff Koons-created artwork didn’t make that abundantly clear. But unlike its source material, this song won’t be the object of substantial analysis in some centuries’ time (or even next year) – ‘Venus’ is enjoyable enough, all glam stomp and disco thump, but as radical in the pop sphere as your standard Christina Aguilera cut.
Speaking of the former Mickey Mouse Clubber, when did Gaga’s own voice become such a ringer for the ‘Dirrty’ singer’s? ‘Venus’ is the first track here that opens up a comparison with Aguilera’s throaty bellowing (albeit not her multi-octave range) – later, ‘Manicure’ and ‘Swine’ find Gaga aping Christina’s more rock-flavoured roar. Which is no bad thing – Celine Dion has called Aguilera “probably the best vocalist in the world”. It’s just that never before has Gaga sounded like her own identity was slipping. These aren’t the only numbers on ‘ARTPOP’ that you imagine would be as effective delivered by another artist.
Part of this impression forms courtesy of the production, which is frequently so aggressive that playing ‘ARTPOP’ a few times in a row on semi-decent headphones will put the listener in a neck brace. It pounds so intensely at times that the Gaga factor is all but drowned out – ‘Donatella’ is one such track, the beats of Russian DJ Zedd delivered loudly and proudly but without any real character, more identikit than inspirationally unique. ‘Jewels N’ Drugs’, featuring rappers Twista, T.I. and Too Short, is another selection which just isn’t Gaga of design – it could be by anyone, released at any time in the last four or five years, her glossy chorus balancing the thuggish braggadocio of the three MCs.
A few unexpected parallels present themselves: at one point of ‘Donatella’, talk of voodoo spins a man’s mind to thoughts of The League Of Gentlemen’s Crème Brulee and their hit ‘Voodoo Lady’ – but that’s probably just me. ‘Fashion!’ rides an arrangement easily comparable to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ (because copying his ‘Fashion’ would make no sense, obviously), which makes it one of this set’s most immediately catchy songs.
Not that ‘ARTPOP’ is short on instant-hit winners: the handclaps and drawled chorus of ‘G.U.Y.’ immediately ensnare the synapses, and the R Kelly-featuring ‘Do What U Want’ is a dreamy mix of (the movie) Drive-like synth ominousness and some excellent lyrical detachment on Gaga’s part. She shoots down the media’s obsession with her looks by focusing on her talents as a performer, whatever the accompanying aesthetics. It’s not the only time here that she’s arguing, convincingly, that she’s much more than a quirky clotheshorse.
But as much as Gaga presents the case that she’s above tabloid tittle-tattle, she dips to material that, really, does nothing for any feminist agenda, be that explicit or unspoken. ‘Sexx Dreams’ is a tiresome 21st century reworking of something lost on the ‘Erotica’ cutting floor – and there was us thinking that she wanted to distance herself from Madonna comparisons.
The Rick Rubin-produced ‘Dope’ is a dreary anti-drugs manifesto. It features the most nakedly arresting vocal here, unaffected by post-production, clear and true against a minimal backing – but it’s a boring song, sadly. The payoff, of needing a lover more than the implied addiction, is more predictable than Postman Pat ultimately getting those parcels delivered after a cavalcade of comedy balls-ups. Seriously, the Special Delivery Service should have sacked his incompetent arse by now.
‘Gypsy’, ‘Applause’ (video below) and the weed-themed ‘Mary Jane Holland’ tick all of the prerequisite Gaga boxes – dazzling production, a clutch of clever couplets, choruses you can demolish a tower block with – but don’t represent notable progression. There’s no central theme to this album, no real narrative that binds its 15 tracks – which, for an album called ‘ARTPOP’, you’d be forgiven for expecting. But then, as Gaga states on the title-track: “My artpop could mean anything.” Great get-outta-jail card right there, Stef.
Not a great pop album, then, but certainly the product of a great pop star. And that’s a difference that demands acknowledging more than ever before in Gaga’s case. She transcended the music industry years ago, and ‘ARTPOP’ is just the scratching one of her many current creative itches. It’s consistently competent, occasionally startling and just sometimes devoid of relatable sentiments – but engaging enough to make the listener want to go around a few times to make sure they’ve not missed anything beneath the terrifically noisy surface. It does enough to prompt questions of whether we’ll ever hear the real Lady Gaga. But perhaps we don’t need to while the hits remain heavy.
Words: Mike Diver
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Clash’s Pop Issue, with Lorde on its lovely glossy cover, is out now – get all the goss here.
Listen to ‘ARTPOP’ in full via Deezer, below…