Despite its title, its Jeff Koons album cover, its frequent nods to haute couture and Greek myth, and its creator’s Maude Lebowski-esque manifesto threatening to “bring ARTculture into POP in a reverse Warholian expedition,” Lady Gaga’s third full-length album bears little resemblance to fine art. Hell, it’s barely even Pop Art. Yet however short it may fall of Gaga’s lofty ambitions, “Artpop” is nonetheless admirable as a sort of throat-clearing mission statement, full of goofy digressions, brave if sometimes foolhardy stylistic explorations, and an emphasis on textures over immediate hooks that may well drive some fence-sitting fans away from Gaga’s camp. Not all of it works – in fact, quite a bit of it doesn’t – but it’s still Gaga’s most successful effort yet to bridge the gap between the eccentricity of her image and radio-friendly conventionality of much of her music.
Of course, one must be careful not to overstate the strangeness of the album. By the standards of 2013’s more boundary-pushing pop albums by Kanye West and Janelle Monae, Gaga doesn’t stray all that far from the mainstream. And even the new styles she appropriates (trap, dubstep, Lex Luger-style hip-hop bombast) are far from cutting edge. But for someone of Gaga’s commercial stature, this is still an adventurously messy collection. Its song structures break from strict verse-chorus-verse patterns with surprising regularity, often adhering closer to the rise-and-fall dynamics of dance tracks, and at other times offering simple goulashes of melodies and soundscapes that rarely peak where one expects them to.
Ardent Gagademics will likely spot all sorts of thematic singularities and hidden throughlines in the album’s 15 tracks — if Gaga took anything truly indispensable from Madonna, it’s the ability to ensure that the discourse surrounding her work is far more complex than anything contained in, or directly suggested by, the work itself — but the recording seems to follow a pretty well-defined three-part structure. The first third contains the disc’s boldest experiments. The middle third, by far the album’s most successful sequence, focuses on sheer dance tracks, ably abetted by producer DJ White Shadow. And the final stretch revels in the self-reflexive myth-making and theatricality that dominated her previous release, “Born This Way.”
Aside from the snoozeworthy slog through second-hand Bowie-isms on “Fashion!” (featuring production from not one but two of EDM’s most egregious schlockmeisters in will.i.am and David Guetta), the album’s lowlights still exude their own odd fascination. Opener “Aura” sounds less like a Lady Gaga song than a hyperactive remix of some lost La Roux b-side, while “Jewels n’ Drugs” sees Gaga cede the spotlight to a trio of rappers (T.I., Too Short and Twista) who have nothing in common save the “T” at the front of their names. The R. Kelly feature, “Do What U Want,” is disappointingly less insane than one might expect from these two, but it’s interesting to hear her stretch her voice to match the pyrotechnics of her duet partner. Likewise on the lackluster ballad “Dope,” which showcases the singer’s instrument shorn of any vocal filters or obvious touch-ups.
Even when she isn’t calling attention to it, Gaga’s voice takes on interesting shadings throughout this record, her singing brassier and ballsier than the haughty, nasal line-readings she’s relied on in the past. On title track “Artpop” — the album’s obvious standout — Gaga effectively channels the icy allure of Debbie Harry over a downtempo disco throb, while the clangorous “Swine” sees her shred her larynx with some arrestingly percussive screams.
Lyrically speaking, Gaga’s skills as a wordsmith seem to have peaked around the time she penned the line “bluffin’ with my muffin,” and “Artpop” provides enough clunkers to supply several monster truck rallies. That said, after the stagy posturing that swallowed up much of “Born This Way,” it’s refreshing to hear Gaga approach relatable topics with simple straightforwardness and humor. Bedroom jams like “G.U.Y.” and “Sexxx Dreams” offer actual first-person accounts of sex (the physical act of love, coitus) rather than slogans cribbed from “Foucault for Dummies.” The bluntly-titled “Mary Jane Holland” crafts an ode to the demon weed with all the subtlety of Cypress Hill. And when she croons “I live for the applause” in the chorus of album-closer “Applause,” she’s not making another contrived statement about the vampiric enchantment of modern celebrity, she’s simply acknowledging and celebrating her own drama-kid histrionics.
That song would seem to be the record’s most obvious candidate for radio play, yet it was greeted with a relative shrug when released as a single in August, and follow-up “Do What U Want” fared even worse. Indeed, this is the first Gaga collection that doesn’t contain a single obvious smash, and one searches for a world-conquering chorus in vain. (Part of this may have to do with the relative absence of longtime collaborator RedOne, whose high-fructose beats and translingual refrains helped shape Gaga’s most earwormy early singles. Though his lone contribution, the “Edge of Glory” sequel “Gypsy,” doesn’t exactly scream “crossover hit” either.) “Artpop” will surely top the album chart when Soundscan numbers are released next week, but there’s still plenty of cause for concern.
Gaga’s first singles took quite a while to click, too, and it’s possible that listeners will warm up to the amorphous melodies of “Venus” or the Toni Basil-gone-bad stomp on “Manicure” once they find their bearings. Then again, if her hold on the monoculture truly is on the wane, Gaga can always find solace in her sizable cult, embracing a trajectory that’s more Grace Jones than Madonna. Judging from some of this album’s more left-of-center moves, that might not be such a bad thing.