Lady Gaga did not play it safe.
After her first full album, “The Fame,” which featured 12 very catchy, radio-friendly pop songs and addendum “The Fame Monster,” which pushed those boundaries slightly with darker themes and more varied sounds, “Born this Way” is an upheaval.
Rather than explore one theme or musical trend, the album runs in several different directions at once. It is a veritable smorgasbord of themes and sounds. Lady Gaga covers familiar territory – sex, religion, rebellion – while reaching into her past with personal lyrics and reminding listeners several times that we are all “born this way.” Sound-wise, the album draws variably from ’80s pop, ’80s rock and ’90s-style dance beats, as Gaga takes on a myriad of personas – from Queen to “Government Hooker.”
The results are mixed but strong overall. At its best, first single “Born this Way” is a reminder of why Lady Gaga became huge in the first place, with ridiculously catchy choruses and playful lyrics. However, sometimes it feels too referential to the point of being stale and unoriginal, and even shallow.
The album opens with “Marry the Night,” a synth-and-keyboard heavy number that starts quiet but builds to a loud, heart-pounding finish. It’s soulful and well-produced, and Lady Gaga’s vocals are fierce, offering a promising prelude of what’s to come.
The album continues with “Government Hooker,” where Gaga croons, “Put your hands on me/John F. Kennedy.” The song opens with an unexpected operatic hook before moving into a fun, electric beat and addictive chorus. Another favorite is feminist anthem “Schiebe,” where Gaga speaks German over a Euro-style dance beat.
“Judas,” Gaga’s homage to a biblical love triangle, recalls “Bad Romance” with its opening hook (“Judas/Jud-ah-ah“) but features a harder, industrial beat that masterfully blends with a pleading pop chorus. In contrast, “Hair” is a playful track with unimpressive lyrics but a chorus that’s more of a rock anthem. “Americano” contrasts everything else on the album with its Latin-inspired sound, modern-musical lyrics and lilting vocal opening.
Some of the coolest tracks, like “Bloody Mary” with its creepy opening children’s chorus and slow, deliberate build, and “Electric Chapel” with its unusual opening guitar and some of Gaga’s best vocals, are great examples of how Gaga pushes the boundaries of pop with tracks that are nothing like anything else on the radio right now.
“Heavy Metal Lover” features some of the dirtiest, catchiest lyrics (“I want your whiskey mouth/all over my blond south“) on the album over a blistering synth background, while “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” channels Springsteen for a pop anthem to unicorns and motorcycles (because honestly, who would expect Gaga to choose between the two?).
However, some of the bonus tracks like “Fashion of His Love” and “Black Jesus + American Fashion” rely too much on ’80s disco chords and sound bland in contrast. “The Edge of Glory,” which should be one of the album’s standouts, uses an uninspired dance beat when it could have stood alone as a ballad.
Speaking of ballads, Lady Gaga re-imagines “You and I,” which she has been performing on tour since 2009 as a simple piano-and-vocal piece, with electric guitar and a chorus of background singers that makes the track sound, oddly, just a few steps away from country.
Despite some missteps, Lady Gaga has crafted an ambitious, unique and complicated album that is much more interesting than the average radio pop song today. After all, it would be asking too much of Gaga to stick to just one style or persona. As she points out in “Government Hooker,” “I could be anything/ I could be everything.“