In the half-dozen years since Lady Gaga wore a meat dress and sang “Born This Way,” rivals have stepped into the void. As she was fiddling with 2013’s disappointing “ARTPOP,” Adele took over as the world’s biggest pop star; while she made different kinds of art with Tony Bennett and TV’s “American Horror Story,” Sia seized Gaga’s radio slot as the belting eccentric. Gaga, just 30 with a deep and soulful voice as powerful as ever, still with enough clout to pull in top studio collaborators such as producer Mark Ronson, performs on her fourth studio album like she wants it all back. She tries too hard.
The through line of “Joanne” (Interscope), Gaga’s fifth studio album, is her singing — “Diamond Heart” opens the album with a big drum sound and a Nirvana-style, soft-to-loud rock structure. Gaga goes low and high with equal skill, peaking with the punk grit that gave us the underrated “Judas.” “John Wayne,” with Queens of the Stone Age guitarist-drummer Josh Homme, is a funny take on The Shangri-Las’ craving-a-wild-man formula: “His grip/so hard/eyes glare/trouble like a mugshot.” “Perfect Illusion” won’t reinvent music like “Poker Face” once did, but it has everything you want in a pop song: driving beat, vocal and synth hooks slamming against each other and a slow build to a dance-floor crescendo.
Gaga’s gifts can’t bail out the weaker songs, though: “Ay-Yo” is a throwaway cheerleader chant set to the Bo Diddley beat; “Hey Girl” squanders a Florence Welch cameo with tepid disco and flat lyrics like “Are you holding out your heart?”; and “Angel Down” can’t figure out what it wants to be, closing the album with formless moaning and kitchen-sink effects like a music box and the pops of an LP record.
“I’m not flawless, but you know I got a diamond heart,” Gaga sings early on — believably. That could be her thesis statement for “Joanne.”