Album review: Lady Gaga, “Born This Way” (Interscope)

May 23, 2011

Last week, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta—she was born that way, 25 years ago in New York—dethroned none other than Oprah Winfrey to claim the number-one spot on the Forbes magazine Celebrity Power List, though you’d never know it from the embarrassing shower of accolades accorded the latter by the local press upon her retirement. But has success and/or the Fame Monster spoiled Lady Gaga? Slogging through the bloated excess of her overlong second album proper, you can’t help but think so.

“Born This Way” may be laudable for its boundlessly pro-woman, pro-diversity, anti-group-think messaging, and Gaga may remain a modestly entertaining presence in any red-carpet/gossip-column setting, mildly tweaking expectations and carefully skirting outrage with an ironic parody of celebrity pomp and/or a meat dress. But our concern here is the music, and, simply put, this time around, it just ain’t any fun.

That is, “Born This Way” is better than the weekly pop product from the “Glee” factory. But just barely. And Gaga has given us reason in her short but stellar career to expect much, much better.

In place of the giddy rush of more avant-garde electronica and Eurodisco lifts percolating under the otherwise mainstream dance-pop on her first album “The Fame” (2008) and the follow-up EP “The Fame Monster” (2009), Lady Gaga not only overplays the much-cited Madonna thievery here--especially annoying with all the Catholic-baiting silliness of “Bloody Mary” and the supremely irritating “Judas”--she indulges in a previously closeted love for ’80s hair-metal/arena-rock absurdity. And from the soggy Springsteen tribute “The Edge of Glory,” which comes complete with a solo from cheesedog sax champion Clarence Clemons, to the Brian May cameo on the Mutt Lange-produced “You and I,” to the downright idiotic “Heavy Metal Lover” (really, Stefani, “I want your whiskey mouth/All over my blond south” is a lyric worthy of Poison or Warrant), this is where “Born This Way” really goes into the crapper.

Throughout, Gaga oversings like the corniest contestant on “American Idol” or "The Voice," venturing perhaps to convince us that under all the gimmicky imagery, she really has some, you know, talent. But we already knew that from her welcome mid-set stripped-down interludes at the grand piano, and like most of the album, the uber-vocalizing just winds up sounding like she’s trying too hard to justify our love. The chanted/spoken-word German incantations in “Scheiße” are the closest we get to a break and, sorry to say, it just ain’t enough.

“I’m a loser, baby/Maybe I should quit,” Gaga sings midway through this mess on “Bad Kids.” I wouldn’t have agreed in the past, but now I’m wondering.

On the four-star scale: 1 STAR

STILL IN HEAVY ROTATION

Bewitched Hands, “Birds and Drums” (Look Mum No Hands)

Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” (Sub Pop)

Beastie Boys, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” (Capitol)

tUnE-yArDs, “WHOKILL” (4AD)

Gorillaz, “The Fall” (Virgin)

Clive Tanaka, “Jet Set Siempre No. 1”

The Feelies, “Here Before” (Bar None)

TV on the Radio, “Nine Types of Light” (Interscope)

Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes” (Atlantic)

Screeching Weasel, “First World Manifesto” (Fat Wreck Chords)

Lupe Fiasco, “Lasers” (Atlantic)

Lucinda Williams, “Blessed” (Lost Highway)

Radiohead, “The King of Limbs” (self-released)

Drive-By Truckers, “Go-Go Boots” (ATO)

North Mississippi Allstars, “Keys to the Kingdom” (Songs of the South)

Smith Westerns, “Dye It Blonde” (Fat Possum)

The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead” (Capitol)