Like the cover of her last album Born This Way, Lady Gaga may be half machine. More likely is that she’s transforming into the pop alien-robot she has been selling herself as since The Fame, and for the first time, she has released an album that feels like most streamlined expression of who she is as a pop artist.
See also: What to Expect From Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP
Gaga sings on the album’s title track–a fluid and dreamy song that arrives at the halfway point–that her “ARTPOP could mean anything.” Like a well-deserved intermission between the busier beats of the songs before and after it, “Artpop” does its best to blend in with the others, but provides that lyric as the most accurate testimony to who Gaga continues to be: an ambiguous creature whose only consistency is that her style, sound, and story will be inconsistent. At the New York ARTPOP pop-up gallery that opened the same day her album dropped, the array of personas are displayed on several mannequins that give an idea of just how many personae she has cycled through. Surrounded by images from her latest era, it’s like they are simultaneously shrouding and encompassing all those pasts. Like David Bowie and Madonna before her, she will keep reinventing herself.
The album begins with “Aura,” a jolting track that begins with the type of intro that could soundtrack a showdown in a Tarantino film and appropriately used in previews for her feature film debut in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills. The lyrics themselves are her equivalent to Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” announcing the death of her former selves as she enters–though he was leaving–a spacey new era. Appropriately, the Sun Ra quoting “Venus” follows and may be her oddest deconstruction of the pop song yet as she sings lyrics like “Aphrodite lady seashell bikini” followed by an effectively blase delivery of the song’s title. In all its pagan glory, “Venus” is catchy and nonsensical while still touting the most common lyrical tropes of pop and Gaga by singing about sex and love.
Pagan robot pop star continues as “Venus” births “G.U.Y. (Girl Under You),” a little ’80s-level futuristic ditty beefed up by a gritty beat during the verses that opens up to a lighter sound during the choruses before breaking down to some recitation of numbers in German a la the also catchy and nonsensical “Scheiße” off Born This Way. “Sexxx Dreams,” a slurring and alluring song, may be her least metaphorical off the album with trap beat-driven “Jewels n’ Drugs” being its only competition. The latter feels like the most out of place and Gaga is outshined on the track by guests, T.I., Too Short, and Twista, who mesh their verses more effectively with the beat than her cabaret vocals are able to.
Lady Gaga’s obsession with the visual and tangible aesthetic finds its way into lyrics and album promo. Between the record release party turned art exhibit on Sunday night she called an “ARTRAVE” and the ARTPOP pop-up galleries in New York and Los Angeles as well as an app that accompanies the album, Gaga has gone beyond using just her body as a fashion canvas that does everything from wearing a meat dress to being enclosed in an egg on a red carpet. Embedded in the tracklisting, too, are odes to the fashion world (“Fashion!” and the droll and shady “Donatella”) and drugs (“Mary Jane Holland”) alongside critiques of critics and musings on her most enduring obsession: fame (the wickedly delightful “Do What U Want,” “Swine,” and lead single “Applause”).
The true centerpieces of the album are the back-to-back ballads “Dope” and “Gypsy,” The former is an earnest and lovesick piano bar staple that has a weak start before blossoming into an effective and belting chorus. Unlike its follow-up “Gypsy,” similar predecessors “Speechless” and “You and I,” “Dope” never evolves into a more danceable tune, making it a risky and throughly enjoyable throwback to her singer-songwriter roots. “Gypsy,” however,” does make the upbeat jump and features some Springsteen-type, Born to Run-era yearnings during the bridge. It’s a freeing song and showcases Gaga at her best.
Though not as easily infectious and bare-souled as her triumphant EP The Fame Monster, ARTPOP digs beneath the cacophony of jumbled sounds, styles, and surface reflections BTW exploded at the seams with and is more meaningfully fleshed-out. Though she has come out strong with several massive and pervasive hits since her debut album The Fame, Gaga has truly produced an album that works well as and album from start to finish, and it celebrates all of her oddness and eccentricities along the way.
ARTPOP is available to purchase now on iTunes. The ARTPOP Pop-Up Gallery continues today and tomorrow at the Alexander McQueen boutique on West 14th Street and is open from 12:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. daily.