'Strap me in, I’m ready for my one way flight to Chromatica' - pop culture pro Conor Behan on Lady Gaga's return to dance pop

GCN's resident pop culture guru takes a deep dive into Lady Gaga's long awaited return to dance-pop. Was it worth the wait?

Cover for the Chromatica album featuring a futuristic woman lying on a glowing grid surrounded by machinery

2016’s Joanne may have had mixed results for Lady Gaga, but she’s truly never left pop culture. From the Superbowl to A Star Is Born and huge Oscar-winning hit ‘Shallow’, Gaga has maintained a space in the conversation even if the earworm dance-pop she made her name with didn’t seem to be in the picture. Until Chromatica touched down.

The news that Gaga would return with a sixth album in 2020 was exciting. The resulting release being moved because of a global pandemic is not something that anyone could have predicted. In an increasingly uncertain time Gaga has returned to the warm glow of dance pop music, she would argue, to save herself. But perhaps her glittery pop can be a balm for us too?

Chromatica was teed up with propulsive pop track, ‘Stupid Love’ and Gaga promising a new planet for her fans to live on. While that concept has become a much-memed talking point, it did suggest another Gaga album potentially weighed down by its own concept.

The real surprise then is how Chromatica is a lean and focussed dance pop record with flashes of the outsize theatricality that is Gaga’s trademark.

While ‘Stupid Love’ was a solid welcome back to pop-Gaga, follow up, ‘Rain On Me’, a propulsive duet with Ariana Grande, gave the project legs as fans clamoured at the thoughts of two pop titans teaming up. Chromatica sees Gaga enlist producers like BloodPop and Burns to shape her dystopian disco vision with input from the likes of Axwell, Skrillex and Madeon. It’s a list heavy on big names and it’s to Chromatica’s credit it flows so well – especially on album that never veers from its up-tempo template.

Orchestral interludes bookend the three acts that the album manages to run through in just 43 minutes, and each seems to have a loose story. ‘Alice’ is a belter of a pop track that wears its ’90s influences on its sleeve and sets up Act One as an insight into the struggle Gaga is going through. She needs to be pulled out of her fugue state and this opening clutch of songs, including would-be anthem ‘Free Woman’ and “crying at the club” bop, ‘Fun Tonight’, suggest Gaga’s happiness is a work in progress.

Act Two is where Gaga almost reimagines the bubblegum moments of her debut album The Fame to re-examine being trapped by the character she’s created. ‘911’ is a robotic earworm pop song so catchy you almost forget it’s Gaga singing about her anti-psychosis medication. ‘Plastic Doll’ is a sharp look at the way she’s packaged and sold as a pop princess. It’s an interesting conceit when Joanne-era Gaga seemed so obsessed with authenticity and discarding the glitter to make a serious point. And yet here, on one of the album’s glossiest moments we get the most insight into how pop stardom has impacted her.

Blackpink collab ‘Sour Candy’ mines a ’90s chord progression that sees Gaga gamely conceding a lot of the short run time to the K-pop superstars with the result being an album highlight. ‘Enigma’ is a swaggering, campy Gaga-on-the-piano moment blended with a house music stomp that finds a new take on her signature sound. ‘Replay’ meanwhile channels Daft Punk for a French house banger with a brilliantly overwrought vocal performance.

Act Three feels like the most disjointed but also the most innovative. Elton John collab, ‘Sine From Above’, subverts expectations- it’s not a piano duet but a campy Euro-pop rave that abruptly embraces drum and bass at its close. ‘1000 Doves’ is as close as the album gets to filler, but also adds to this act’s theme of finding healing and safety through music.

It all ends on the gloriously weird ‘Babylon’. Sounding a bit Bowie, a bit Madonna with a gospel choir, house music piano chords and talk-singing, it’s catchy and unpredictable and finishes the album on a high. It feels clearer production wise and lyrically more obtuse, almost suggesting a Chromatica sequel, where Gaga takes the dancefloor healing of this project and takes it to new heights.

Chromatica is a fizzy pop thrill, laced through with lyrical honesty and plenty of future hit singles. At times the sleek club-ready production runs the risk of dulling Gaga’s edges – it lacks the same kitchen-sink pop opera feel of Born This Way or the deeply weird pop moments of Artpop. What it does have is a clarity of purpose and a lightness that has eluded her previously.

Strap me in, I’m ready for my one way flight to Chromatica.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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