Twelve years ago, an unknown singer in a disco-ball bra told us it’s gonna be OK.
The artist was Lady Gaga, and the message came by way of her infectious debut single “Just Dance,” her first of four No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Flash forward to 2020, and that blissfully carefree chorus couldn’t seem further from the truth.
By now, you’re probably well aware that we live in a dystopian hellscape: a deadly virus is forcing us inside, our president is suggesting we inject disinfectants, and police are continuing to kill unarmed black men and women. It hardly seems like an optimal, let alone appropriate time to release an album full of sweaty dance-floor bangers. But after months of song and track list leaks, Gaga had no other choice than to unleash “Chromatica” on the world this weekend – and frankly, we’re all much better for it.
“Chromatica,” out Friday, is her first solo effort since 2016’s “Joanne,” a well-intentioned but mostly forgettable foray into earnest country-pop. (The aching title track is an all-timer, although the less said about “Million Reasons,” the better.) In that nearly four-year span between albums, Gaga has managed to headline the Super Bowl halftime show, play dual Las Vegas residencies and win an Oscar for her signature (i.e. memeable) “A Star Is Born” duet “Shallow,” performed with Bradley Cooper.
But all those were red herrings for what she had in store on “Chromatica,” a Trojan horse of electro-pop earworms that at 16 songs and 43 minutes has virtually no fat. Once again recruiting BloodPop for the bulk of co-writing and production duties – as well as European DJs Madeon, Axwell and Burns – Gaga delivers an album’s worth of four-to-the-floor anthems that are begging to be played at festivals and gay clubs whenever it is safe again to do so.
After a brief, dramatic overture – the first of three strings interludes – Gaga launches into the album’s hypnotic opener “Alice,” invoking Lewis Carroll as she robotically beckons, “Take me home / take me to Wonderland, Wonderland.” From there, the should-be hits keep coming: “Free Woman,” a euphoric thumper about reclaiming your space; the grimy “911,” in which she gets frank about antipsychotic medication; and “Fun Tonight,” a propulsive breakup anthem nodding to her earlier work (“You love the paparazzi, love the fame”).
Lady Gaga at last year’s Met Gala in New York. The Grammy winner released her sixth album “Chromatica” on Friday.
Like her pop forebears Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson – and more recently Dua Lipa, on her throwback sophomore effort “Future Nostalgia” – Gaga’s “Chromatica” is indebted to ’90s house music, with its swirling synths (“Replay”) and woozy horn loops (“Enigma,” a soaring standout). Her sultry “Sour Candy,” with K-pop girl group Blackpink, is the best of the album’s three collaborations, which are occasionally hampered by frustratingly vague lyrics despite reliable vocal turns from Ariana Grande (“Rain on Me”) and Elton John (“Sine From Above”).
In lead-up interviews and music videos for “Chromatica,” Gaga has painted the album as its own utopian musical universe: a steampunk sci-fi world where oddballs and outcasts can dance and love as they please. But unlike 2013’s “Artpop,” a misunderstood misfire with similarly lofty ambitions, “Chromatica” delivers on its energetic, empowering concept, making it Mother Monster’s catchiest and most cohesive body of work since 2011’s hit-spawning “Born This Way.”