What a relief: the “real” Lady Gaga is gone. For a while, it looked like pop’s high priestess of serious silliness was being sucked into the Slough of Authenticity – first with her supposedly stripped-back, country-inspired 2016 album Joanne (in truth, about as stripped back as Universal Studios is when compared with Disney World), then with her garlanded turn in A Star Is Born and its painfully earnest soundtrack album.
Being real is a look every artist has to try on at least once, but it was never going to become Gaga’s signature style. Chromatica, her sixth album, brings back the spectacle, manifesting a parallel reality she’s had one foot in since childhood, centred on colour, kindness and connection. “Earth is cancelled,” she declared. “I live on Chromatica.” Coronavirus temporarily put a halt to the world-building begun in the Star Trek-flavoured video for lead single Stupid Love, forcing her to delay the album (she curated the One World: Together at Home concerts in the meantime) and leaving her summer tour up in the air. The songs, though, are more than vivid enough to conjure Planet Chromatica by themselves: Gaga’s always tended to overstuff her records, but the hit rate on these 16 tracks is her highest since the gothic techno cabaret of 2011’s Born This Way.
Where that album was all glossy black, blood red and chrome, Chromatica is rainbow-bright, its colours lovingly painted with US producer BloodPop and a host of bit players. The opening track, Alice, takes her down a new rabbit hole, recalling the best of 90s chart house – Ken Doh’s Nakasaki, Ultra Naté’s Free – as she promises: “I’ll keep looking, keep looking for Wonderland.” In the past, she’s generally gravitated more towards techno, beats rigid and clunking; her surrender to the exhilarating, erotic pulse of funky and handbag house feels like a delicious release. Rain on Me exults in radiant piano stabs, her throaty roar and Ariana Grande’s airy flourishes bouncing off each other beautifully, while Plastic Doll takes the classic pop conceit of woman-as-mannequin to new heights, with a paradigm of a chorus that recalls the roots of world-conquering 00s pop in Swedish clubland. The rush only wears a tiny bit thin on 1,000 Doves, Enigma and Replay, which are fine but no more, and Sour Candy, a bubbling collaboration with Korean group Blackpink which, though probably the most modern sound here, seems a little too anodyne for Gaga.
Chromatica’s burst of light is set off all the more vividly by a darker backdrop. Gaga has spoken about how making the album helped her begin to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from being raped repeatedly at 19, and also with the dissociative, objectifying double-edged sword of celebrity (“your monsters torture me”, she wails on Replay – hard not to read that as an allusion to her most fervent fans, the Little Monsters, much as she undoubtedly loves them). Meanwhile, 911, a tribute to her antipsychotic medication, conjures the claustrophobia of compulsive thoughts with a more familiar technoid throb and a nervy robotic vocal: “Turning up emotional faders/Keep repeating self-hating phrases.” The beat jackhammers, driving her up to a Donna Summer trill, then slows to a more comfortable groove as she regains perspective and control: “my biggest enemy is me, pop a 911”.
Chromatica’s frank grappling with the vagaries of Gaga’s brain – and the way fame exacerbates them – ends up feeling much more real than touring dive bars with a guitar and a Stetson ever did. Healing through music is a common enough theme, but here and now, especially, it’s genuinely euphoric to hear Gaga dancing out of her head and back into life. Sine from Above, its plucked strings and trancey pulse expanding on the album’s classy instrumental interludes, spells it out, Gaga picturing a restorative sound wave beaming down from the sky as Elton John (whom she credits with helping her see that creativity needn’t mean self-destruction) bellows, “When I was young, I felt immortal”, like Flash Gordon’s Prince Vultan across the vistas of her imaginary world.
Babylon sees her strutting off into the sunset with splashy catwalk piano, sax with attitude and a half-rapped vocal so reminiscent of Madonna’s Vogue that the two stars are likely to have public words again. She’s probably well aware of that: the song insouciantly dismisses celebrity gossip, “something that used to run my life and make me feel so small”. Where Alice’s opening lines saw her pleading “could you pull me out of this alive?”, here she urges: “Battle for your life!” It’s a triumphant closing note to a return to form whose reviving power feels very real indeed.