Friday, July 6, 2012

Lady Gaga, Born This Way (2011)

Kert Vollmann

To offer that one is unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Lady Gaga would be as good as admitting to having been a hermit for the entire duration of the past few years, although given the numerous riffs on religion in Gaga's output altogether, even a hermit would most likely find it difficult to be unaffected these days. Personally, I can't profess to recall being a particularly big fan of Gaga ¾ when she first made an appearance around the Christmas of a yesteryear, she seemed little more than a further paste from the platinum variety that used to be the feeble-minded (as well as feeble) rage at the time. Inseparable from any of the knock-offs brought to you by Clones 'R' Us, the one thing she could inspire at that stage was indifference at best. What I can recall, however, is the precise moment when I realized that paying attention would probably be a good idea ¾ it was around the time when Mike Patton of Faith No More (and so much more, of course) mixed "Poker Face" into his live sets as part of their "Chinese Arithmetic." The chorus that initially failed to catch on in Gaga's original rendition had suddenly stuck to my mind with Patton's, a twisted take that was both an homage and a bizarrely effective vocal emulation of a DJ's turntables all at once. Needless to say, "Poker Face" hasn't left me (as it certainly hasn't the rest of the world, for that matter) ever since that turn.
            What, then, can be said of her newest child, Born This Way, an album that heralds the end of a prolonged wait following Lady Gaga's stratospheric rise to not only world domination but to artistic credibility to boot? With attention spans in reverse proportion to skepticism and the power of judgment merely a mouse click away these days, it goes without mention that audiences have every convenience available to be unforgiving in advance. Seeing as the less than conventional "Edge of Glory" was to be my own foretaste of the album, I cannot really deny that my approach to Born This Way has been a bit of a biased one, too, and clearly not in a way that would give Lady Gaga much of an edge in the process.
            It should be necessary to point out, though, that it amounts to a precious little nothing whether one is willing to give her an edge or not (nor whether it should be to dance along to or to dissect that one sought out her album for) because as soon as Born This Way has lift-off, there remains little doubt that Lady Gaga has the upper hand all the same. Ever since that opening track accelerates from a wistful pop requiem into a triumphant, pulsating anthem of self-confidence, what fast becomes clear is that Lady Gaga is likely to inspire all number of things but indifference is definitely not one of them anymore. What's more, the incessantly restless texture of the instrumental side of things, leaning more towards David Guetta than Nine Inch Nails (though comparisons can be drawn to both), seems to allude to something else as well. Namely that if Born This Way were some kind of an animal, the creature we'd be looking at is without a doubt a chameleon ¾ never more evident than when "Marry The Night" clocks in at three and a half minutes and one might be forgiven for thinking the song is drawing to its inevitable close, except that it's there that it turns into a whole different beast instead, one that sounds nothing like the tune it started out being. So different, in fact, is this change of mind right before the end that it would easily make up a whole new song (and not a bad one at that) if it were a separate entity. Seeing as it isn't, it amounts to an uplifting finale of almost hallowed proportions, and a perfect introduction to the album as a whole. It is almost as if Lady Gaga had a proverbial ear to our hearts, as if she knew exactly how much we crave for invention, if only in small doses. Respect.
            Speaking of proverbial and otherwise, the carpet pulled from underneath our feet within the first song is rather telling of the album as a whole. Not since Marilyn Manson and The Golden Age Of Grotesque has an artist accused of being shocking (whatever that means in anyone's book) attacked the concept of re-invention with such unabated glee as does the dare Lady here. Born This Way is never content with the simplest solutions, opting instead to fidget with everything at hand until it has nailed a certain something that is familiar in essence but not in execution. It is not so much a hyperactive child that tears and tugs at everything in sight without purpose but a rather clever one that seems to have figured out the basics of how things work and is now busy wondering just how many different combinations can this knowledge yield. If Gaga hasn't waded through the studio throughout the album like a child herself, she can certainly make the listener feel like a child, because there are practically no restrictions here. There is but curiosity and fascination, both amply rewarded. Consider the example of "Scheisse," for instance ¾ a song that, taken apart, would leave so much unanswered, among other things the question as to why or how it should work at all. Driven by a trance beat from the worst excesses of the nineties, it would automatically signal the beginning of a very bad song were it anyone else's piece. Yet this has been layered with so much in just the right measure that it actually seems to make sense that nothing else but an evil trance beat could have worked. There is, of course, another of the album's winning choruses lined up as well, once again sneaking in from out of nowhere and, once in bloom, revealing itself to be unlike anything that one could have seen coming. Never wanting to settle on a straightforward repetition of a single motif, carving up words as she sings along, teasing them out and toying with them to see if things can be expressed in a manner different from what they already have been agreed upon, Lady Gaga has pretty much decided to have fun with all the tools available to a musician. Nevermind that the album's title track bears more than a passing resemblance to "Express Yourself" nor that the dominant synth line in "Government Hooker" has been lifted from "Rudebox." If you can spot the influences, it is because Born This Way is a perfect example of how you can be derivative and still expand on it in copious amounts. The fact remains that no two songs on the album sound the same, and hardly any of them sound like filler. How often can one say that about anything that passes for an album these days?
            Another thing about the album that cannot be ignored is the big, bold throbbing heart it wears upon its sleeve. Whether or not it is a heart that truly echoes Gaga's own, it is nevertheless a heart of rare beauty, one that is capable of not merely sympathizing with all the lonely souls in this world but has the courage to own up to it as well. Consider the song "Bad Kids," for instance, one of the best examples over a long time of coming to terms with the gist of what really makes up the misunderstood ("I'm a bad kid like my mom and dad made me") before offering an empowering consolation, mixed with a valuable piece of advice: "Don't be insecure if your heart is pure / You're still good to me if you're a bad kid, baby." But there are, of course, traces of evidence found in abundance here to reflect Gaga's ability to recognize and render into lyrical dimension that age old thought which lurks within each heart the world all over ¾ that all of us are looking for true love to give our existences a meaning. Oddest of all is the realization that how Gaga pulls this off is not through some cash-grabbing catering to expectations on the most popular of themes throughout pop history as could justifiably be suspected. Be it sewn up into a touching verse such as "Love is just a history that they may prove / And when you're gone, I'll tell them my religion's you" in "Bloody Mary" or the determination to recapture and better a relationship once lost in "You And I," she comes across as being at her sincerest each time and that is truly a beautiful thing to behold. For someone who plays a field that is all about pretending in the first place, it is most rare indeed.
            If different types of albums had their particular brand names, this one might well be of the Reviewer's Delight variety, for Born This Way is a creation one can analyze at length, not just scoff over or complain about and then fill out the rest of the time and space continuum by whining how much better music used to be God knows when. Here is an album that could have entire treatises written about it, for it is difficult to want to stop writing about the manifold parts of its sum, and that is perhaps its only drawback when it comes to writing a review on its merits. Suffice to say that it is an album best kept away from sunlight, seeing as many of its moving parts have been designed with (and, no doubt, within) the confines of the nocturnal realm in mind. It is an album to be let loose in the depths of night and at full volume, for despite its flaws, of which there aren't that many to speak of, this is a massive album. What is truly admirable is that it succeeds not because of its overwhelming tonnage, but despite of it. In an overly simplified landscape of late, Born This Way stands out like a voluptuous baroque ensemble amidst the inane and the identical, a daring mirror bringing light among mere concrete blocks conceived through cold, cash-horny calculations rather than any free flight of inspiration. Whether it'll be an "album of the decade," as Gaga herself has promised prior to the release of Born This Way is a notion far too soon to take for gospel, seeing as said album just so happens to arrive into a decade that has barely had time enough to begin. Held up against the pop scene of the faded last one, however, there is good ground to consider this if not the ultimate contender then hopefully a trendsetter, showing that pop music doesn't necessarily have to be catering to idiots and that there are still ways of singing it without the cheap aid of autotunage. And it is rather a curious notion, to realise that one might no longer think of Madonna as a mere artist alone but as an aristocratic title of pop royalty that, once an era has seen itself to an end, gets passed on to a successor, because Born This Way, it seems, has effectively established a brand new Madonna for a world where the previous one has long since ceased to be relevant for anything other than her long-standing legacy. Some might disagree (and some might not quite care at all) but it's about time, too.