Dance Pop Genius And Stupid Interludes: First Impressions Of Lady Gaga’s ‘Chromatica’
'Chromatica' is one of Gaga's greatest records, despite some very obvious missteps.
Well folks, it’s here: Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated sixth studio album Chromatica has finally been released.
It had a pretty stilted run up — the first single leaked online, and then the entire album’s release was delayed due to the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we were also served some stunning singles, with ‘Stupid Love’ and ‘Rain On Me’ quickly asserting themselves as some of the year’s best tracks.
At 16 tracks long, there’s a lot to unpack in Chromatica — even if the run time is only just under 44 minutes. So let’s get our paws up, and dive in.
Jules: I do love an orchestral intro, it must be said. This is the type of Born This Way and ARTPOP extravagance, of Gaga extravagance, we’ve all missed. Also, there’s a hint of golden age of cinema here, very Hepburn.
Joe: I am anti-interlude. I can’t help but feel whenever an artist uses them that they’re just a way to game the Spotify charts by filling an album with very short songs. But I mean, it’s a less irritating interlude than some, so I can’t get too mad? It’s certainly lush!
Jules: That’s fair. And seeing as Chromatica is 16 songs long but doesn’t even run to 44 minutes….Gaga wants that #1 album.
Joe: It’s the way the industry goes these days, can’t really blame Gaga! It’s just strange that we have moved so away from the “complete album” listening experience as a culture and towards scattered singles, but still have an influx of gimmicks like interludes.
Jules: Joe, I can see the strobes in the distance…they’re calling. Initially, I thought this was going to be a full blown ‘Marry The Night’ Vol. 2 scenario. But the house beats anchoring it are taking it in a different direction. It’s reflective, also, of the kind of pop dance music that was coming out at the turn of the century — gigantic disco tracks grounded in house music.
Joe: It’s kinda reductive to compare Lady Gaga to Madonna because everybody on the planet has already done it. But my goodness, sometimes those comparisons are just impossible to ignore. Especially here. It’s a Ray of Light B-side!
Jules: You’re right, this is very, very classic. Also, it’s been a while since we’ve heard a big drop like this in pop music. Nice to have it back.
Joe: I agree with you that it’s a throwback track — that production is deliberate anachronistic. But in a really fun way; helps it sound different without descending into a schtick.
Also, as a longtime fan of the Resident Evil movies, I’m gonna pretend that the Alice in this song is a reference to the main character in that film series. It almost definitely ain’t, but I’m going to pretend.
Joe: I love this song.
Jules: Honestly, it’s just…phenomenal. That bass sound gets me every time – it’s similar to the sound she used in the ill-fated ‘Do What U Want’ on ARTPOP, it’s like someone’s playing slap bass with your spine. The way the bass gives way to that airy pre-chorus is pop genius, and to bring it back hard in the chorus…it really is just perfect pop song construction.
Joe: I think in the latter part of her career, Gaga made the mistake of over complicating things — going for tricks rather than elegant pop songwriting. But this is a call back to her early work: direct, in fussy pop craft. And that chorus!
Jules: That chorus. I think the reason I didn’t click with Joanne, and maybe why Joanne didn’t click as a whole for Gaga fans, is that this is what Gaga is at her best: Ridiculous, extravagant, sweaty, calling to a higher power. Gaga isn’t a relatable popstar, that isn’t her role in the world.
Joe: I absolutely agree. She’s best when she’s making cheese — even something like ‘Shallow’, which pretends to be a respectable, subdued work, is absolutely off chops. And so she should always remain.
‘Rain On Me’ (With Ariana Grande)
Jules: Goddamn Joe, goddamn. The way that melody just comes crashing in is awesome to behold. There’s no reprieve. This is Gaga hitting you over the head with yet another blistering pop melody, right after ‘Stupid Love’.
Joe: I was really excited when I saw the two singles came right at the top of the record. Albums these days are so often waiting games, slow builds to songs you already know. I like that we are a few tracks in and have already covered most of what we have heard already. And Grande! So exciting to have her back.
Jules: Ariana is so good here. She’s has some awkward guest spots in the past, but her voice works so well — nicely juxtaposed against the masculine notes in Gaga’s voice.
Joe: Yeah she’s often best when she’s in her own lane, but she’s well chosen for this song and does exciting, odd things with it.
Jules: Okay, you know what instantly came to mind: J.Lo’s green shimmering dress in ‘Waiting For Tonight’.
Joe: Oh, I really see that. It’s odd to hear an artist nostalgic for the early two thousands — it still feels really recent to me! But the thing commits hard enough to the bit that I reckon it totally works.
Jules: I was worried that Chromatica would be a carbon copy of Born This Way or The Fame…but really I shouldn’t have worried. But you said it above: Gaga has that magic touch of repackaging nostalgic sounds — house music, turn of the century pop — and making it sound fresh in 2020.
Also, I think this the first time I’ve wished that it was just a little bit longer. I hope these tracks get some hearty club mixes, because they’re screaming out for them. I wish ‘Free Woman’ just maybe chucked on a hectic breakdown and another chorus to really bring it home, like ‘Edge Of Glory’.
Joe: I kind of love how to the point it is, to be honest. I think Gaga works best when she’s compact — otherwise she can lose herself, just a little. Oh and I bet you a remix album is round the corner.
Jules: This track is the first ‘eh’ for me yet. It’s very light on, in a lot of ways.
Joe: I like it, but I think that we are getting to the stage where something needs to change. ‘Rain on Me’ and ‘Stupid Love’ are perfect examples of a specific form, so to hear Gaga keep messing with that same form for a few more songs feels a little redundant. But hey, I like that ‘Paparrazi’ reference! The Lady Gaga connected universe!
Jules: Love the fame. Love the paparazzi. Yeah you’re right — it feels as if she shaved off bits and pieces of the track prior and stapled them together. Even her vocal performance is a little flat here, she doesn’t have the lift of the other tracks.
Joe: I do love how spacious the track feels though. You could drive a truck right through the centre of it, what with all that reverb on the vocals and the big, lumbering pace of the thing.
Jules: For sure, the melody feels so spaced out, like Gaga’s singing about two words per bar.
Jules: Okay this is where I agree with you — what the fuck was the point of that?
Joe: Imagine if ‘Chromatica II’ was your favourite song on this album. Like, you weren’t into the actual songs, but were all in for random bits of orchestral filler. I know it’s meant to make things feel expansive. But the album feels strong enough at this point that I feel that sense of magnitude off the songs alone.
Jules: All that did was completely kneecap the momentum of the first six tracks.
Jules: One of the best and most underrated songs in the Gaga catalogue is ‘Government Hooker’ — a pulverising monotone crusher. This very much feels like it descended from ‘Government Hooker’.
Joe: This is just so immediately my favourite song on the album so far. Like a bar in and I am totally sold. I totally agree. It’s just big and crunching and silly, in all the right ways.
Jules: Also, the way the harmonies run counter to the main melody at the minute mark — a wonderfully clever bit of composition. Beautiful to hear.
Joe: You know which band a lot of the record so far has reminded me of? AQUA. And this song more than any of the other ones. It just has that perfectly retro plastic gloss to it — these big, deliberately ridiculous choruses nestled in thudding but beautiful repetition.
I’m into it, for the record. I’ve just had ‘Barbie Girl’ vibes for the last ten minutes or so.
Jules: That’s such a great shout. You’re completely right. That ringing synth sound like it came straight out of Amsterdam at the beginning of the EDM explosion. Also, catch me writing ‘I am top shelf they built me strong’ in an Instagram caption.
Joe: It’s so silly! But at the same time, so totally heartfelt. Which has always been the Gaga modus operandi.
‘Sour Candy’ (With BLACKPINK)
Jules: First and foremost…that bassline is one of the best we’ve heard yet. Never underestimate the sheer power of a sexy, slinky bassline. It links the entire song together — I found myself just focusing on that instead of what was happening over the top.
Joe: That’s true. And Gaga has always the exacting attention to detail that her best songs are worked on from the ground-up — there’s always something exciting to listen to, no matter where your ear falls. Also ‘Enigma’ is a perfect Gaga word.
Jules: Gaga’s great when she’s ridiculous and happy and in her ‘WE CAN DO ANYTHING’ mode, but Gaga’s also excellent when she gets a bit dark — when she drops her vocals down and sounds menacing. The kind of person you’d encounter in the dark corner of a club trying to sell you something, and you’re definitely buying it.
“Gaga’s great when she’s ridiculous and happy and in her ‘WE CAN DO ANYTHING’ mode, but Gaga’s also excellent when she gets a bit dark.”
And yeah, I completely agree — these songs sound like puzzles, there’s so much going on and it will take a number of listens to pull them apart completely.
Joe: Which is interesting, given that so many of these songs are, on the surface, simple and short. Perhaps more simplistic and short than any set of Gaga songs to date. But as you say, even spending a little bit of time with those singles reveals how they can change and warp.
Jules: It’s wild to note that the longest song on the record is 4.04. Most of them hover around the three minute mark.
But you’re right, they’re so compact, they’re punching well above their weight.
Joe: The shortness of the tracks does definitely make listening to the album front to back a slightly odd experience. But in a good way. You’ve only just registered a song before it has gone.
Jules: If you fed every Gaga song into a computer and asked it to create a track — this is what it’d come out with. It’s got a bit of every part of Gaga here. The nonsensical lyrics that somehow scream empowerment, the jet-like thrust of the chorus, the heavy bassline. Hell, there’s even a tiny bit of sax creeping over the horizon.
Joe: It’s so ridiculous! Particularly those opening few bars. A perfect example of a song that starts at 11 and then gets turned up with every single ensuing line. It’s a surprise that the whole thing doesn’t just collapse under its own weight, to be honest.
Jules:: It definitely had the potential too — there’s about 5 different songs here all crammed into one.
Joe: I also think we’ve hit the golden stretch of the album. These last few songs have been some of my favourite Gaga tracks in a long time. And they’re just different from each other enough to stop the thing from feeling samey.
Jules:: Exactly. Also, if this isn’t just a testament to what Gaga is, I don’t know what is. This song is ludicrous, it’s bonkers, and yet Gaga — in the sheer belief of herself and the power of her presence — just picks us up and takes us along for the ride.
Joe: There are things which Gaga can get away with that nobody else can. The chorus to this song is one of them. It’s just so ridiculous and repetitive, I can’t think of a single other artist who could make it sing. And in the age of pop ghostwriters, that’s really saying something. I mean, in the mouth of someone like Rhianna or Katy Perry, the thing would die a death. But Gaga is our pantomime star, in the best way that can be taken, and this is a total pantomime song.
Jules: This is one of my favourite songs here, abso-fucking-loutely. You’re right, it’s almost stupid how straightforward it is, and yet…Gaga powers through. There’s also some very classic tropes of dance here — the muted instrumentation coming into clarity, then dipping in and out again. It is repetitive, but it’s these tiny changes that keep our ears interested.
Joe: I think you’re speaking to the fact that so much of the success of this record comes down to production. If you had someone in the booth flattening all these songs, they’d be deathly boring. It’s only that the thing has so much space to breathe that it works.
Jules: Yeah you’re exactly right. There’s a brightness and life to the production that is so, so clever and well done. Also, that chorus is simply FANTASTIC. I won’t lie, I spent a fair chunk of this song flinging myself about the room.
Jules: Okay well yep, that was useless.
Joe: This one’s not even fun to listen to!
Jules: The only thing I enjoyed was the brief flash of French horn.
Joe: I’m now totally convinced that there’s no thinking behind these interludes but an attempt to fuck with the charts.
‘Sine From Above’ (With Elton John)
Joe: Oh my god, Elton’s voice on this song.
Jules: There’s just so much going on here.
Joe: Why does he sound like this? He’s literally never sounded like this in his entire career.
Jules: The effects on his voice are something else — but it works, it fits like a glove I think. But you’re right, this ain’t ‘Tiny Dancer’.
Joe: Also, is that title a maths joke? Sine as in, the trigonometric function of an angle? ‘Cause if so… Why? To be fair, I’m not really complaining. I don’t think Elton is entirely at home here. But at the very least, he provides a good guide to how you should listen to the song: with all of your prior expectations thrown out of the door.
“Why does he sound like this? He’s literally never sounded like this in his entire career.”
Jules: Call me basic, but a classic airy pre-chorus like that just gets me. Particularly when it’s spaced even further and just drops out to everything except for her voice. The creeping production that then explodes into this gigantic Euro-pop chorus – it’s just too fun, it’s wonderful.
I mean, this is just a Eurovision song. I’ve heard this 10,000 times before — and I’ll love it every time. Honestly, I think it’s glorious.
Joe: Ha, Eurovision is absolutely the right reference point. It really is. Also, the album’s longest song! Interesting to save it for way back here, in the latter half.
Jules: I think it offers a necessarily lift after that goddamn stupid interlude.
Jules: “Lift me up, give me a start, because I’ve been flying with some broken arms.” — Lol okay Gaga.
There’s nothing groundbreaking upfront here. But the joy here is hidden in the production — as we’ve banged on about for basically every track — there’s some wonderful synth sounds and clanging guitars and pin-balling trance sounds. In fact, this song owes a lot to trance — I can hear Robert Miles’ ‘Children’ in here.
Joe: The way her voice kinda burbles on “lift me up” is great too. But I agree, for the most part, I think it’s becoming clear that the album needed some tightening. There’s extraordinary stuff in here, but it does sometimes feel like it overstays its welcome here. Which is surprising, given how much we’ve talked about how compact some of these songs are. I just think material like this called for an, “in and out” approach.
Jules: Um I’m sorry, is that ‘Vogue’?
Joe: It’s so Madonna! It is unbelievably Madonna. Also, our colleague Patrick Lenton has pointed out that the bird-call in this song sounds exactly like a “prominent sound in the iconic PC game Age Of Mythology.”
“Serve it ancient city style”. What more could you ever want from a chorus?
Jules: This is wild — there has to be some kind of sample/writing credit to Madonna here. But aside from that, this track is taken straight from ARTPOP.
Joe: It’s extremely confusing that her whole career she has been blighted by comparisons to Madonna, and yet she still can’t help herself but ape her.
Jules: This is ‘Fashion’ Vol. 2 — half expected her to namecheck Donatella again.
Joe: It’s also very ‘Mesopotamia’ by the B-52s — particularly the lyrics.
Jules: A curious end to the album though — a great strut of a song, but something like ‘Sine…’ would have fared better as the closer I think.
Joe: Maybe. Though I don’t know if the last thing I want in my ears is that Elton John vocal.
Joe: For the most part, I’m really onboard with everything here. I adore Madonna, so the constant references to her work feel fun to me, if sometimes more reductive than necessary.
And as we’ve said again and again, the real superstar of this thing is the production. There’s a real precise construction to these songs, and it’s so exciting that Gaga has worked with a team that know how to back off and give her some space. Cut this thing down to maybe half the running time, and you have one of the best albums in the Gaga back catalogue. As it is, it’s a soaking mess that only just overstays its welcome.
Cut this thing down to maybe half the running time, and you have one of the best albums in the Gaga back catalogue.
Jules: There are some misses here, I’ll grant you that. But I do think this is, on the whole, a pretty cohesive, focused record. Every song is enjoyable, and you can imagine the reception they’ll get on the dancefloor at 2am. There’s also some career highs here — ‘Stupid Love’ and ‘Rain On Me’ and ‘Sour Candy’ and ‘911’ and ‘Enigma’…they’re just excellent.
I had bit of worry when Gaga looked determined to go back to the club, now that she’s surrounded by artists that she’s helped influence — what would differentiate her? But this is so unmistakably Gaga, and still sounds so fresh and so different to her peers.
Joe: Hopefully it inspires a brand new wave of AQUA appreciation!
Jules: We can only hope.
Lady Gaga’s Chromatica is out now via Universal Music Australia.