Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett: Love for Sale review – jazz interloper livens up crooner’s swansong

The pop diva and jazz maestro defy the latter’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis and team up once again, this time for a creditable set of Cole Porter covers

When Lady Gaga announced her 2014 album of duets with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek, various explanations were given for the existence of an album that would once have seemed unthinkable. It was a return to her roots: long before Stefani Germanotta changed her name and became an arty fixture in the downtown clubs of Manhattan, she had trained as a jazz singer. And it was a reaction to the control exerted in the world of mainstream pop. On the albums that made her globally famous, she protested, producers had Auto-Tuned her voice against her wishes; singing standards was “rebelling against my own pop music”.

The artwork for Love for Sale.
The artwork for Love for Sale. Photograph: PR

If you wanted to be cynical, you might also have suggested it was a savvy move. Before Cheek to Cheek, Gaga’s career had wobbled. Her third album, Artpop, met with mixed reviews and, by her previous standards, underwhelming sales. You didn’t have to buy the rumour, vehemently denied by the singer, that it lost her label $25m and led to redundancies to figure out that shifting 2.5m copies was noticeably different to the 15m of her debut. If the pop world was slipping out of her grasp, Cheek to Cheek smartly opened Lady Gaga up to a different market: not jazz fans per se, but the old-fashioned, easy-listening end of the BBC Radio 2 audience – a cohort, it’s worth adding, who still buy physical product.

That cynical voice might say something similar about Love for Sale, a collection of Cole Porter songs that arrives a year after Gaga’s Chromatica: a well-reviewed return to electronic dance-pop that didn’t restore her once dominant position within the pop firmament. But cynicism is quite a hard pose to maintain when confronted by the album itself, which arrives bearing an emotional charge that its predecessor did not. Bennett is 95 and has Alzheimer’s, diagnosed after plans for the album were laid: the two shows he and Gaga gave last month in New York were his final public performances, and Love for Sale will be the last new release of a recording career that began 72 years ago. His family were unconvinced he would be able to record the album at all.

Beyond sympathy and sentiment, Love for Sale disarms cynicism simply by being infectiously good fun. If Gaga is enacting another stage of a gimlet-eyed scheme to broaden her appeal, she doesn’t sound like it. Indeed, if you wanted to level a criticism, it’s that she occasionally feels as if she’s enjoying herself too much to inject the requisite pathos into a song such as Night and Day. She’s better served by the lighter, more uptempo love songs. Bennett’s vocals are clearly those of an older man, but they never bely his failing health: he was always a full-voiced singer, and the amount of power he still can muster is pretty remarkable. And if his condition affected the chemistry between them in the studio, you wouldn’t know it on the evidence of I Get a Kick Out of You or You’re the Top.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett: I Get a Kick Out of You – video

Presumably mindful of the objections jazz fans might raise to Lady Gaga recording another album of standards – chiefly, that there are umpteen hugely talented jazz vocalists who struggle for recognition and record deals – she begins the album with a kind of apology, flipping the lyrics of It’s De-Lovely: “Control your desire to curse, while I crucify the verse.” But it isn’t needed. Set to arrangements that offer no concession to this century, her performances avoid all the obvious pitfalls you might expect from a pop singer keen to prove they can cut it without studio ministrations. She doesn’t over-sing, or camp the songs up; nor does she sound cowed by the company she’s keeping. There’s a conversational ease to her vocals.

If it’s never going to supplant Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book in anyone’s affections, Love for Sale underlines that Lady Gaga can creditably sing jazz. Whether she chooses to again, without Bennett, is anyone’s guess. And if you’re unlikely to reach for it over, say, The Beat of My Heart or his late 50s work with Count Basie, it isn’t a bad way for Bennett to bid farewell. It’s not just that he still sounds good. He once claimed the modern material he was forced to record on 1970’s Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! made him physically sick; it’s fitting that an artist so resistant to pop trends says goodbye by allowing a huge contemporary pop star into his world, rather than vice versa.

This week Alexis listened to

Jon Hopkins – Deep in the Glowing Heart
Epic, potent ambient electronics, infinitely less floaty than the album title (Music for Psychedelic Therapy) might lead you to believe.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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