Those picking up Lady Gaga’s latest in the hope of finding balls bigger than the one sported on the cover will be reassured by the opening moments of “Aura”, Artpop’s demented preamble. “I killed my former and / left her in the trunk on Highway 10,” she sings over a hastily strummed guitar, as if reciting the prologue to a direct-to-DVD Kill Bill rip-off. The track soon builds into a cacophony of laughter, then to an operatic breakdown of the its title, before finally morphing into the sticky electro-pop for which Mother Monster is best known, an aesthetic she maintains for the much of the record’s duration.
“I’m not a wandering slave / I am a woman of choice!” she rather justifiably belts. While its more provocatively titled demo “Burqa” may have caused a stir when it first leaked back in August, Gaga has shown some serious cojones – and perhaps just a smidgen of ignorance – in her keeping of the imagery of the burqa central to the song. “Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura? Behind the curtain, behind the burqa?” The sentiment of using said garment not as a tool to absolve oneself from the pressures of sexual objectification but rather as a minor obstacle in Gaga’s quest to slay the notion of female modesty once and for all is a divisive one, but it’s nice to know that the presence of that gaudy blue orb was not an act of overcompensation.
The record is allegedly the lovechild of the two unlikely bedfellows of its title, although it seems rather incongruous for a woman who has always approached her pop career as if it were at bonafide art form to suddenly create a distinction between the two. In practice, Gaga’s concept is less of a perfect marriage between art and pop than it is a botched blind date that ends after one drink. The ‘union’ has little effect on the music itself, with its impact peaking with the album’s striking artwork, care of Jeff Koons, while each of Artpop’s subsequent achievements can be attributed to its adherence to the demands of its second syllable.
With their tough, stuttering verses and effervescent choruses, both “G.U.Y” and “Sexxx Dreams” may have been tailor-made to blare from the open windows of your local bordello, but it is Gaga’s warm humour that will beckon you inside. The former’s eponymous acronym has an amusing pay-off, while the latter briefly sees Gaga go off-script for a brilliant, universally experienced moment of self-reflection: “I can’t believe I’m telling you this but I’ve had a couple of drinks and oh my god.”
“Venus” – for which Gaga takes head production duties – has more hooks than a fishing tackle shop, yet somehow retains some semblance of cohesion thanks to its theme of intergalactic love. Shifting from call-and-response verses, to a maniacal marching band drum-backed bridge, to a massive, ABBA-aping chorus, it’s easily one of the best songs of Gaga’s career. In fact, if nothing else, Artpop re-affirms Gaga’s flair for devising arresting melodies. Even the skeletal production of the riot-grrrl-esque “MANiCURE” and the undercooked fashion industry satire “Donatella” cannot detract from the plethora of hooks on offer.
Despite being vastly more approachable than 2011’s Born This Way, Gaga’s pretentions do creep in on occasion. The pleasant electro-bop of the title track is rendered powerless against her pseudo-philosophical lyrics. With lines such as “My Artpop could mean anything,” it seems that Gaga is actively competing for the title of Most Redundant Manifesto. Karl Marx would not be proud. On the other end of the spectrum, “Jewels N’ Drugs”, a hideously lazy attempt at a hood anthem with asinine contributions from rappers T.I., Too $hort and Twista, threatens to derail the entire set.
But fortunately, Artpop is, more often than not, an absolute blast. “Fashion!” is a brilliantly straight-forward slice of David Bowie-inspired strut-pop. The snarly banger “Swine” has so many breakdowns you may feel compelled to slip it a number for the Samaritans, while the anthemic “Gypsy” skips along like “Edge of Glory”’s folky cousin. Even “Dope” – the album’s token piano-ballad detailing the singer’s former reliance on marijuana – comes off as more sweet than sanctimonious.
In “Do What U Want”, her sultry duet with R. Kelly, Gaga may have a contender for Single of the Year. At one point, the R&B legend croons: “We layin’ the cut like we don’t give a f*ck.” We recommend you speak for yourself, Mr. Kelly, because it’s clear that no one in pop music gives more of a f*ck than Lady Gaga. And based on the evidence that the lion’s share of Artpop provides, it would appear the feeling deserves to be reciprocated.
If You Must Cherry Pick: “Venus”, “Do What U Want”, “Fashion!”, “Gypsy”, “Mary Jane Holland”