Raised expectations can be a bitch, and sophomore albums are notoriously difficult, especially after a first album is so well received. Lady Gaga's 2008 debut, The Fame, produced four massive hits and created the most recent pop superstar, a game-changer of an artist who has redefined what it means to be a pop performer while taking a page or two (or more) from acts like Madonna and Elton John--artists who previously served in that role.
With the release of Born This Way, Lady Gaga's second album, the pop singer shows no fear in the face of those typical stumbling blocks. In fact, prior to its release, she talked the album up so much herself that it seemed impossible it would be as good as she thought it was. And frankly, it's not the best pop album ever, or even the best pop album released so far this year. But compared to her prior work, it definitely exceeds expectations. Against any meaningful measure, Born This Way is a triumph, continuing to push the boundaries of pop music (as well as a few buttons).
"Marry the Night" starts the album quietly with brooding synths and vocals and then quickly transforms into one of the album's biggest powerhouse dance pop tracks. It's a great song--one I expect will be a future single. The albums' highlights tend to be these high-energy numbers, particularly the songs we've already heard (the title track, "Judas" and "The Edge of Glory"). "Born This Way" is particularly great, better for its incessantly addictive rhythm than its social message (we're all born the way we are, so let's just all accept it and love one other--well-intentioned, but hardly groundbreaking).
As you would expect, the production here is top-notch electropop, churning out every conceivable type of electronic beat, bleat or synthetic keyboard creation you can imagine. "Judas" bristles with fuzzy synths and booming bass. It's such a great power pop song; I still can't fathom why it's become her first single to flop. That she's still drinking from the '80s synth-pop well is not surprising. She continues to do so effectively, even making a compelling argument for bringing back the saxophone on songs like "Hair" (which I'm liking more and more lately) and the current feel-good hit single "The Edge of Glory," which closes the album on a high note. "Bad Kids" and "Fashion of His Love" derive their appeal from the pulsating sound of mid-'80s dance pop--the kind that Madonna and Whitney Houston excelled at circa 1984-1988.
Gaga is a strange lady, so there are quite a few weird numbers in the mix. "Government Hooker" is an odd one for sure, sounding a bit like Britney Spears' "Gimme More." I've listened to it several times and read the lyrics and still can't tell you what it's about. It references JFK, so is she trying to pretend she's Marilyn Monroe? Well, Marilyn never sounded like this. I'm not sold on it yet, and neither am I really digging the Latin turn on "Americano," although I do appreciate the effort to mix in some Flamenco styling. I do, however, quite like "Scheiße," her foray into '90s European techno ("sheiße" is German for "shit"). "I don't speak German but I can if you like," says Gaga during the energetic dancefloor-ready tune before launching into a few lines of German a good source tells me is mostly nonsense, but fun nonetheless.
There are a few slower-by-comparison songs on the album to help break up what would otherwise be a pretty exhausting listen, although I wouldn't call any of them ballads. "Bloody Mary" is ominous synth-pop, but one suspects in a tongue-in-cheek way similar to what the Pet Shop Boys were doing in the '90s. "Black Jesus + Amen Fashion" also sounds kind of PSB-ish with its grandiose posturing and '80s keyboard melodies. "Electric Chapel" is in this vein too, maybe a little more toward Depeche Mode in its nod to gothic synth pop. Mutt Lange shows up to produce "You and I," which, with a different arrangement, could have been sung by his ex-wife Shania Twain. It's the only song that feels out of place here.
Lyrics aren't Gaga's strong suit, although she frequently turns out some memorable phrases. On "Judas," she uses Christian imagery to portray her love of the bad boy ("Jesus is my virtue, but Judas is the demon I cling to"). Hardly the religious statement some believed the song would be, it's just a simple metaphor. That her songs' substance frequently fails to achieve a deeper level of meaning isn't necessarily a bad thing. Do we really want dance pop music as social commentary? Seems like it can strive to be merely fun and really achieve exactly what it should. So when religious icons show up in other songs ("Bloody Mary," "Black Jesus + Amen Fashion" and "Electric Chapel"), they're there more for window-dressing than to make some big statement.
The album can be a bit grueling to get through. At 14 tracks (17 if you get the longer version), it's not a quick listen. That was one of the things that was so nice about Fame Monster--all eight of its tracks were winners. At this length, you're more likely to encounter a few duds. That said, Born This Way is an overall stronger listen than her first album, The Fame, which lost steam quickly beyond its mega-hit singles. Born This Way offers up gems and surprises all over the place, broadening the singer's sound while solidifying her dance pop base. It's a solid effort, one destined become one of the year's defining hit albums.
Best: Born This Way, Judas, Marry the Night, Scheiße, The Edge of Glory, Fashion of His Love, Black Jesus + Amen Fashion