An album whose upbeat tempo stands in stark contrast to it’s mature, deep lyrical content.
It’s been nearly seven years since Lady Gaga released an album (Artpop) that sounded anything like ‘Chromatica’. The electronic, dance sounds that defined her early years were abandoned after her 2013 album received mixed critical reviews and spawned less hit singles than her previous projects. In her 2014, ‘Cheek to Cheek’ collaboration album with Tony Bennett, she made a surprise move towards a more jazz-focused sound and, then transitioned into country-pop/soft rock sound with 2016’s ‘Joanne’ – a sound she broadly maintained for the 2018 ‘A Star is Born’ soundtrack. ‘Chromatica’ is the closest thing to ‘classic Gaga’ that we’ve seen in years.
Gaga’s transition to her ‘old’ sound is a natural part of her artistic evolution. After the lukewarm critical response to ‘Artpop’, Gaga understandably wanted to move away from electronic, dance music. However, absence truly does make the heart grow fonder and, the absence of Gaga’s old sound for so long made many fans hungry for it’s return – especially because such a sound is not commonly seen in the charts at the moment.
Commercially, Gaga’s sixth studio album is a roaring success – going to number one in over a dozen countries and boasting two commercially successful singles (one of which – Rain on Me – went to number one in over half-a-dozen countries). The size of Gaga’s feat should not be understated. After achieving three U.S. number one singles between 2009 and 2011, Gaga failed to create any number one singles in the seven years afterwards. ‘Cheek to Cheek’s two singles failed to place anywhere on the Billboard Hot 100 and ‘Joanne’s lead single – Perfect Illusion – peaked at number 15. It was with the late-2018 release of ‘Shallow’ that Gaga’s career received a massive boost that most artists can only dream of. For an artist to have achieved number one singles across three separate decades – as Gaga has – is a triumph that only a very small, select number of artists have ever achieved. In fact, Gaga now holds the U.S. record for the longest span of number one debuts. ‘Chromatica’s success is even more impressive considering how different it sounds from most of the songs on the charts right now. Gaga’s greatest commercial success has always come from bucking trends.
Gaga has described executive producer BloodPop as the “nucleus” of ‘Chromatica’, and his influence on the album is clear throughout. However, it’s unclear whether he is actually a help or a hindrance to ‘Chromatica’, overall. While he definitely helps Gaga achieve her aim of making “the world dance and smile“, his production leaves the album lacking variation; preventing any one song from standing out among the rest. Moreover, the production can make the songs on ‘Chromatica’ feel generic and dated – two words that have never before applied to the ground-breaking, risk-taking music of Gaga.
However, if one looks beyond the production (which, admittedly, is hard to do on this album), there’s still a lot to like about ‘Chromatica’. The lyrical content is deeper than that from any other Gaga album (with ‘Joanne’ being the only possible exception). On opening track ‘Alice’, Gaga pays homage to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ singing, “My name isn’t Alice, but I’ll keep looking… for wonderland” – it’s a clever lyric, albeit one that probably doesn’t warrant being the basis for an entire song.
On ‘Rain on Me’, Gaga uses rainfall as a metaphor for tears, singing, “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive”, while ‘Free Women’ is an unabashedly empowered anthem (“I’m still something if I don’t got a man / I’m a free woman”). Throughout the album, Gaga explores a number of more mature, personal themes. On ‘Replay’, she explores having PTSD from being repeatedly raped at 19 (“The monster inside you is torturing me / The scars on my mind are on replay), and track eight ‘911’ – which transitions in smoothly from ‘Chromatica II’ – deals with her taking anti-psychotic medication (“Pop a 911, then pop another one”).
The lyrical content throughout ‘Chromatica’ is quintessentially Gaga; it’s bold, unsubtle, and often bizarre (but in the best way). Out of all of Gaga’s albums, ‘Chromatica’ is the most intimate and revealing. While the album isn’t without fault, it also achieves a lot – it’s a fun, but deep, dance anthem, that tells Gaga’s personal story in detail and thrills fans who were nostalgic for the Gaga of the late 00’s/early 2010’s. By reviving elements of her ‘old’ sound, while ditching the theatrics of the meat dress and giant egg, Gaga has produced an authentic, up-tempo album that does exactly what it sets out to do.