It's difficult not to view Joanne through the prism of Artpop, the 2013 album where Lady Gaga's expanding fame balloon finally popped. Ambitious but muddled, Artpop debuted high but came crashing down to the ground, stalling out after the second single, the R. Kelly duet "Do What U Want." Gaga quickly retreated to the confines of cabaret, cutting a nicely accomplished standards album with Tony Bennett, a move that not only gave her the opportunity to work with a legend, but signaled that she considered Artpop a step too far: The camp of Cheek to Cheek was elegant, not garish, an acknowledgment that she was once again back in control of her joke. It set the stage for Joanne, a clever streamlining of the Lady Gaga persona that functions as the opposite of Artpop. All the excesses are excised while the eccentricities are used as accents on songs that are usually well-rendered pop. A few numbers take a passing glance at country music -- the title "Joanne" winks at Dolly Parton's "Jolene"; in a different arrangement, the ballad "Million Reasons" could be an adult contemporary crossover from Faith Hill or Shania Twain -- but Gaga's feet remain firmly planted in dance-pop even when she brings in Father John Misty, Beck, Florence Welch, and Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age for collaborations. Homme co-wrote "Diamond Heart" and "John Wayne," two of the harder disco songs here, while Misty assists on the steady rolling "Sinner's Prayer" -- perhaps the best fusion of country and pop here -- and "Come to Mama," a buoyant throwback to Motown that finds a companion on the Welch duet "Hey Girl," an analog slow jam that floats in the shimmer light. These, plus the riotous "A-Yo" and the masturbation ode "Dancin' in Circles," don't necessarily find comfortable companions in the ballads peppered throughout the album, but executive producer Mark Ronson helps polish Joanne so it flows easily, which is its appeal but also its Achilles Heel. Where previous Gaga albums were high-wire acts, Joanne is decidedly earth-bound, a record made by an artist determined to execute only the stunts she knows how to pull off.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine