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 411mania » Music » Album Reviews

Lady Gaga - Artpop Review [2]
Posted by David Hayter on 11.12.2013

Lady Gaga - ARTPOP

1. Aura
2. Venus
3. G.U.Y
4. Sexxx Dreams
5. Jewels n' Drugs (featuring T.I., Too Short and Twista)
6. Manicure
7. Do What U Want (featuring R. Kelly)
9. Swine
10. Donatella
11. Fashion!
12. Mary Jane Holland
13. Dope
14. Gypsy
15. Applause

Is Lady Gaga in crisis? No one could be faulted for laughing at the mere suggestion. After all the world’s most conspicuous pop star is returning on the strength of a sophomore album (Born This Way) that sold in excess of six million copies worldwide. However, scratch beneath the surface and the state of planet Gaga appears a little less than rosy. Those impressive sales represent less than half of The Fame’s global total and her big comeback single (“Applause”), by and large, failed to land. No amount of Internet hype for the slick “Do Want U Want” can quiet the chattering classes who continue to sneeringly observe that Gaga hasn’t delivered an earth shattering single in what feels like an eternity (but that really amounts to about two and a half years).

Who the hell cares about record sales and the billboard charts? What’s that got to do with art anyway? Sure it has a lot to do with “pop”, but Gaga is more than that, right? From day one she has been sure to present herself as an all singing, all dancing, all writing, all designing proposition of the highest order. All the trappings are in place – knock out singles (check), preposterous concept albums (check), ridiculous stage shows (check), jaw droppingly “controversial” outfits (definite check) – say what you will about Gaga herself, there’s no denying her credentials or her progressive impact on pop. There’s just one little problem (the same one complaint that’s been hanging around since Born This Way dropped), whether its real or imagined, there is an unmistakable sense that Gaga has fallen off.

She does so much of pop right, setting such high aesthetic standards for herself (who else is daring critics to compare thier work to Koons and Botticelli in the same breath?), that it becomes almost painfully noticeable when her music doesn’t deliver to a high enough standard. Born This Way never reached the self-empowerment heights it aimed for, but behind the rhetoric laid a sweaty blitz of Berlin inspired euro-hedonism. ARTPOP comes with even greater pretensions. This is art as pop, pop as art, and pop music that seeks to channel and reflect modern/high art. A novel idea that occurred to a plethora of other pop stars 40 (or some would argue 50) years ago, and has never gone out of fashion since.

Regardless of its staleness, the concept is still a good one. Gaga always seemed like a Jeff Koons kind of girl, and the idea of creating the pop equivalent of a canvas exploding with sheer unrelenting gaudiness, the gleaming artificial surface of soulless silver teddy bear, or even crystalline depictions of a newly wed couple mid-fuck sounds, well, bloody brilliant. Unfortunately while, at times, Gaga presents a glorious car crash of conflicting sonics (“Aura”) and delivers some fabulously iconoclastic one liners (“Don’t You Know My Arse Is Famous?”), more often than not her music feels neutered. This isn’t Andy Warhol and Truman Capote coked out their minds listening to Velvet Underground massacre their nominal hits at The Factory, and it is certainly not a performance artist writhing in filth and screaming “De Kooning!”

Worse, not only does ARTPOP fail to mirror the insanity of the modern art world; it fails to match her own peerless pop past. In her pomp Gaga’s music grabbed you by the scruff of your neck and battered your synapses with melody-upon-melody and thudding off-kilter beat after thudding off-kilter beat. The onslaught was relentless and by the time the last “rah rah” had been warbled the listener was reduced to a jabbering-gelatin-mess helplessly repeating her every last syllable. Compared to “Telephone” and “Bad Romance’s” bruising onslaught, the undeniably addictive “Applause” feels like a three-minute tickle session and the star gazing Gaga-by-numbers “Mary Jane Holland” is nothing more than a benign belly rub. They pull the right poses and hit the right spots, but they fail to leave a mark. “Gyspy” is perhaps the worst offender. After struggling through some leaden songwriting, it blends the storytelling Gaga first seen on The Fame Monster with the wannabee great American songwriter of Born This Way, but where a tub-thumping chorus should lie, an archly formulaic Guetta-pop cast off stands.

It’s a worrying trend that recurs across ARTPOP. Lady Gaga sounds as only she can, but her palette is dated. She’s a dot painting when molten plastic sculptures are all the rage. This wouldn’t matter in the slightest if Gaga simply got out of her own way, but she’s not quite willing to overwhelm with sheer addictive pop and she can’t quite strike the innovative poses she’s looking for. The end result is “MANiCURE” and “Donatella”, flashes of brilliance drowning amid their own mediocrity. Solid, well made, but ultimately unspectacular pop with plenty of faux shocks is the order of the day and, for Gaga, that simple won’t do.

This might sound rather gloomy, but there are tentative glimpses of what ARTPOP might have been. The Infected Mushroom assisted “Aura” is a phenomenal starting point. Gaga stamps her diamond-studded stilettos over a crushing beat that churns, claps and malfunctions magnificently. The Israeli producers might be in a dementedly dirty world of their own, warping mechanical vocals and Arabic instrumentals, but Gaga is more than game, delivering one hell of an opening gambit: “I’m not a wondering slave I am a woman of choice!”. Have that Miley. What lies “behind the burkha” (spoiler she does it for the applause) isn’t half as interesting as hearing Gaga brain fart allover the kind of beats that would give Katy Perry nightmares.

Gaga injects a delightfully endearing melody on “Venus”, a track which manages to posses both kitsch inanity and a strange baroque grandeur. It’s the best kind of nonsense, it doesn’t nod or wink, it just keeps banging its head into one wall after another. “G.U.Y.”, on the other hand, feels a touch recycled, mercifully Gaga does hypnotic-slipping hooks better than most and the beat has plenty of crunch. “Sexxx Dreams” rounds of a fearsome opening barrage with a Prince-light flourish, but it raises an awkward question? Does Gaga get sexy? Her vocals have a nasty habit of sounding stilted, no one doubts her libido, but there is a sneaking suspicion that she’s had men falling over her for so long that she forgotten how to sound alluring. The end result being: a lot of sexless sex-talk.

Despite “Fashion!’s” best Bowie inspired efforts, Gaga never quite hits these early heights again. The decline is hardly precipitous, but it’s stifling as the album struggles to live up to its mind-bending promise.

ARTPOP is not short of ideas, innovation or melody – infact it’s really rather good – but the chasm between Gaga’s ambition and her level of attainment is growing wider and wider. As her conceptual underpinnings grow grander, her pop music becomes meeker (and at times frightfully dated). It’s a worrying trend that ARTPOP only serves to exacerbate. Thankfully, Gaga hasn’t lost her pop touch, in fact, at her best; she’s more subversive than ever. “Aura” and “Venus” are fantastically ridiculous compositions than no pop star (male or female) would even dare to envision, let alone execute. Gaga has never been afraid to endure the laughs and snarky snickers to deliver whatever demented vision is currently occupying her mind. Pop needs more stars like Gaga, but when she fails to deliver what she (consciously or unconsciously) tacitly promises, her albums will continue to feel like disappointments.

Perception problem or not, masterpiece or masquerade, we can all toast a pop star who will have stadiums across the world shouting: “YOU’RE JUST A PIG INSIDE A HUMAN BODY! SWINE!

The 411: Only Lady Gaga could release an album that's simultaneously dementedly daring and frustratingly restrained. ARTPOP promised the mad, strange, beautiful brilliance of modern art, but can only manage to deliver interesting well-crafted pop. There are a handful of stunning highs that hint at Gaga's former and potential glories, but more often than not ARTPOP fails to bridge the gap between rhetoric and achievement. This is not super powered pop, in fact, it's strangely muted (but never mannered). When Gaga cuts loose and embraces innovation she stampedes allover her competition, unfortunately those moments are too fleeting. Uniformly good, occasionally excellent, worryingly dated - ARTPOP is not a disappointment, but it may well disappoint.
Final Score:  7.0   [ Good ]  legend


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