I’m a big fan of The Fame Monster and thought to myself a few years back that Lady Gaga would probably not be able to outdo that album and its quality. Born This Way certainly didn’t help matters – the good songs are good although most are very derivative (with the exception of ‘Americano’ which should have been released as a single), the bad songs are pandering or boring (I cannot understand the appeal of ‘Marry the Night’ or ‘Yoü and I’ and its superfluous umlaut).
The build-up and hype around ARTPOP, as well as a lot of Lady Gaga’s artifice in dealing with its publicity (the insistence that it must be spelt in allcaps for instance) as well as a bit of weariness with Lady Gaga’s devotion to spectacle outweighing her devotion to the music itself admittedly put me in an apprehensive light on the album.
Happily, it’s better than I was expecting! It’s not a perfect album, and it doesn’t have the sense of cohesion that the Monster EP had, but it’s much more a sign of Gaga playing around with themes and style, while sticking fervently to her pop roots.
Opening with the deranged ‘Aura’ sets the expectation of the album being over the top and theatrical (everything we’ve come to expect) but more than just the excessive showmanship that drowned much of Born This Way.
There are two concepts that weave their way through the songs on the album: Gaga’s “reverse Warholian expedition” (which admittedly, may be seen more with the release of the ARTPOP app that coincides with the US release date) can be phrased much less pretentiously as the want to use works of art to build her music on (best evidenced in ‘Venus’ which takes some cures from Boticelli’s Birth of Venus and combines them with references to the planets in our solar system), and also her seeming desperation to be as famous as can be and her voracious appetite for the attention of the world.
This last one is something that many people would already associate with Gaga and her wacky ways, but she’s taken that notion of attention-grabbing and focussed it into a consistent theme that influences the album, and although it might be the tipping point for people who prefer her music to her theatricality, she does it very well.
This isn’t to say it’s entirely successful though – some songs do smack of trying a bit too hard in their lyrics (‘Sexxx Dreams’ and ‘G.U.Y.’ often make the mistake of confusing flagrant sexual content with eroticism) and some songs do fall short of the mark in terms of actual enjoyability (‘Do What U Want’ commits the grievous sin of being relatively boring, especially in comparison with other tracks)
However, the album as a whole is constantly listenable – Gaga’s used her versatility as a singer across the board, ranging from the über-stylised vocals of ‘Donatella’ to the (genuinely!) soulful strains of the introspective ‘Dope’ (a song that compares love to drug addiction and asks Gaga to make a choice between the two – it also seems to be the replacement for ‘Princess Die’ which she premiered a few years ago then declared would not be appearing on the album) and there are some great moments among the other tracks (‘Swine’ and ‘Mary Jane Holland’ are awesomely danceable in their own way).
Closing the album with its lead single ‘Applause’ is a good choice too – solidifying the themes she plays around with in terms of her devotion to fame and to her fans, and ending on an upbeat note that will herald in the arrival of ARTPOP: Volume 2 (which she’s confirmed is in the works.)
It’s not as good as the Monster EP, but it’s miles ahead of Born This Way. There’s a fair bit of variety within her own trademark styles, and the songs seem influenced by other styles and genres, rather than a paint-by-numbers retooling. I can’t say that I felt I went through a reverse Warholian expedition, but it’s an album I enjoyed listening to despite its occasional misfires. That said, if you’ve been waiting for Lady Gaga to tone it down a notch, this is not the album for you.