With incomparable flair, the pop diva returns to her dance-pop days with a fabulously fun and deeply personal album that is at turns bizarre, theatrical, and ambitious.
Lady Gaga has canceled Earth. She lives on planet Chromatica now. Yes, this is Stefani Germanotta’s return to all that is Lady Gaga: bizarre and theatrical and ambitious, swathed in electrodes, operating with a ga-ga-galaxy brain, delivering dance bangers for us canceled Earthlings. Chromatica is her first pop-pop album since 2011; unlike the non-“Why Did You Do That?” parts of the A Star is Born soundtrack and the beige acoustica of 2016’s Joanne, there’s not a ballad to be found. Specifically, according to Gaga lore, “Chromatica” is some kind of far-flung pink-prism Mad Max planet where “ballads are illegal.” Who doesn’t love world-building?
But while Chromatica is a return to Gaga’s dance-pop days, that doesn’t mean quite the same thing now. It’s been 12 years since her debut album The Fame, released when “EDM” was just corporate jargon and “dance” meant stompy electroclash. In 2020, a Lady Gaga dance album comes out as an unabashed revival of ’90s house music. But if anyone’s earned a trip to the house, it’s Lady Gaga, who is among the few big pop stars today who can legitimately be called a diva. When Gaga sings, she sings out: not chill, not Idol-pretty, but unafraid to go there, whether there be throaty rasps or sotto-voice commands or feral desperation. It’s why her hard-rock dalliances largely worked, and why Chromatica feels more substantial than other artists’ throwaway dance turns. So much nu-house is producer-driven, its vocalists reduced to decorations if even credited; there is no risk of this with Gaga. Everything here would be unmistakably her even if self-reference didn’t abound. Lead single “Stupid Love” salvages the juddering sequencer of “Do What U Want,” kicks up the speed, and weaves Gaga’s past lead singles around it like Maypole streamers: the oncoming-juggernaut heft of “Bad Romance,” the melodic contour of “Born This Way,” the conceit of “Applause.”
The other line about Chromatica is that it’s Gaga’s most personal album. You may recall that Joanne was also called Gaga’s “most personal album.” That time, it was “personal” in the same way all pop stars’ unplugged albums get called that: the arrangements had acoustic guitar, and the AutoTune was kept to a tasteful touch-up. Chromatica loses the guitars but certainly handles heavy subject matter: PTSD triggers, antipsychotic meds, sexual assault. In fact, most of Lady Gaga’s music since The Fame has been very personal. For every shiny, poppy song like “Telephone” or “Hair,” Gaga’s recorded three more with wounds at the core: the personified fears of The Fame Monster, the parts of Born This Way that are more darkwave or Warcraft than bubblegum; the bitter mess of 2013’s Artpop. Themes recur: fragmented identity, soldiers to emptiness, drinking tears, dying a little when being touched. The art is often messy, the specific mess of art written from trauma. Even when Gaga dons freaky costumes or writes high-concept songs about Judas or swine, the artifice cracks. It’s why her albums hold up surprisingly well. It’s telling which Gaga moments have resurfaced from the early 2010s into current cultural memory: the deadpan, panting intro to “Monster,” or the sludgy-gothy “Bloody Mary,” which TikTok made even sludgier and gothier.
Chromatica reverses this effect. This is house music at its most shiny and immaculate, a genre made from ache and escapism, high strings and numbing throbs. But Gaga’s lyrics are plainspoken, mostly free of religious metaphors and pretense; of the two high-concept songs on Chromatica, one is deliberately silly (”Babylon”) and the other (”Alice”) immediately yanks the metaphor back into reality: The first words are “my name isn’t Alice” and the song is inhabited not with white rabbits but the more terrifying creatures inside one’s mind. The emergency in “911” refers to olanzapine, a fast-acting antipsychotic that Gaga says saved her life. The track begins with a cold, stark beat, her vocals affectless and vocoded. The whole thing sounds off, and when the sweet, singsong chorus arrives, it just sounds off even more. The counterpoint never quite resolves with the melody, and the most painful lines (“Wish I laughed and kept the good friendships”) are tossed off, almost missable. But these are wonderful details, ones you can dance through now, then catch later.
For all Gaga’s emphasis on Chromatica being an album meant to be heard start-to-finish with no skips, the sequencing is a bit off. The string interludes, composed with Morgan Kibby (M83, White Sea), separate the albums into three acts, each with its own filler. The climactic redemption of Ariana Grande collab “Rain On Me” comes about ten tracks too early, and “Free Woman” and “Fun Tonight” lose energy so close together. In act two, “Plastic Doll”—the basic idea of which you can guess just by reading the title—would have been too on-the-nose on The Fame. “Sour Candy,” the break-the-internet collaboration with K-pop superstars BLACKPINK, is sassy enough, but on a Lady Gaga album, and particularly this album, it feels out of place. That’s partly because there’s no Gaga until over a minute in, partly because we’ve literally heard it before: “Sour Candy” is at least the fourth pop song built on a sample of Maya Jane Coles’ “What They Say,” Then there’s the unavoidable fact that Chromatica is an album explicitly made for big communal dancefloors, released just before Pride month, a big celebratory mood, in a year when none of those things quite exist like they used to.
Chromatica’s two strongest tracks are near-total opposites. Imagine an axis from bizarro transcendence to pure transcendence; “Sine From Above” is all the way at the left. Each individual part of it makes sense, kind of. Lady Gaga and Elton John? Sure; they’re godfamily, after all, and he’s a livelier duet partner than Tony Bennett or Bradley Cooper. Elton John with two-thirds of Swedish House Mafia? That was the idea, back in 2013. An ode to a literal sine wave, dropping decibels from the heavens? If anyone would write that, it’d be Gaga. Attacking that theme with zero-irony gusto that Eurovision would co-sign, going for it and never looking back? Chopping everything up for a drum-and-bass tangent at the end? To borrow the theater-kid saying, it’s big and wrong—yet so big, it’s hard to call it wrong at all.
If “Sine From Above” runs on WTF, “Enigma” runs on familiarity: Every musical and emotional beat arrives precisely on cue, as if the club had muscle memory. It’s massive, it has a gravitational pull. Uncoincidentally, the chorus recalls a certain other song about being heroic lovers, just for one night. It slots right into Gaga canon: Enigma is the name of her recent Vegas residency, and the snippets of sax that crest above the choruses recall the late E Street Band member Clarence Clemons on Born This Way. And, crucially, it nails the desire of meeting someone in all its urgency. On planet Chromatica, “Enigma” is otherworldly: the atmospheres light up violet, dragon’s eyes and phantoms abounding. It’s the same drive that’s powered dance music, from disco to house to Gaga—turning a moment heightened, more fantastic, and, even at its most strobe-lit and artificial, somehow entirely human.
Buy: Rough Trade
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