People take Lady Gaga far too seriously, including (and especially) the artist herself. In theory, and in dress, she has lofty aspirations to be pop music’s resident weirdo, even though her biggest hits are all about formula. She looks like a maverick who takes chances without actually doing that in her music. She sticks to the script, even while wearing slabs of meat.
Yet she has pulled ahead of the pop-star pack by the simple act of being LADY GAGA. Not Lady Gaga, lowercase. She is larger than life and over the top and loved and loathed because of it. Gaga is a global brand, and her provocative public appearances are her billboard. You think she’s odd? Perfect. She’ll give you odd to the nth degree. And then some.
That approach worked well on her debut, 2008’s “The Fame,” which spawned the soundtrack to that year with “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.” But the mechanics and burden of being Lady Gaga swallowed her on its follow-up, “Born This Way,” three years later. In place of fun and frivolity and good songs, she grew preachy and self-important, too much in her head.
That’s why “ARTPOP,” her third studio album, which is set for release on Monday but already streaming online, is such a stunning and welcome reverse of course. It packs a punch precisely because its maker didn’t try so hard to do that. She’s still tethered to her outlandish image and to our expectations of her, but when she finally loosens her grip on this album, it’s a marvel to see what’s beneath those gaudy exteriors.
It’s a dance record, for sure, with thumping club beats designed for European discotheques. But “ARTPOP” isn’t as tightly wound around the production as her previous records were; there’s a slackness in some of its mid-tempo numbers and subtle expansions of her sonic palette.
Of its 15 songs, more than half of them are exceptional. “G.U.Y.,” “Sexxx Dreams,” “Do What U Want,” “Swine,” and “Artpop,” in particular, are among the year’s most memorable pop songs, even if they never top the charts. They work so well because Gaga is in service to losing herself in the music rather than being tied to the pretentious caricature she has become.
Then again, performing in character is a long-held tenet of pop music. We like it when our stars are unattainable. It’s hard to sift David Bowie and his albums from whatever guise he’s pursuing at the time. Madonna practically made all of “Erotica” under the veil of dominatrix Mistress Dita. And Janelle Monáe still maintains she’s an android from a distant planet.
Sometimes, though, you simply want to enjoy the music for its own merit. When Gaga drops the performance shtick on “ARTPOP,” the album really finds its footing. It throbs with joy and sex and freedom, none of which Gaga has truly embodied since her debut.
It’s the kind of a blockbuster pop album that’s mainstream but kooky enough to make you realize just how bland her peers sound on their latest releases, from Katy Perry’s “Prism” to Miley Cyrus’s “Bangerz.” On the opening “Aura,” a spaghetti Western interlude gives way to a series of jittery beats that shift and contort like a lightning round of Tetris. Gaga rides the bumpy rhythm until she gets to ask, “Do you wanna see me naked, lover?. . ./ Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?”
With cameos by rappers T.I., Too Short, and Twista, she treads lightly into hip-hop on “Jewels N’ Drugs,” which puts some grit in her immaculate techno. (It’s a little disheartening that she felt the need to bring in rappers to sing a song about drugs, but I digress.)
“Do What U Want” makes better use of its guest, even if R. Kelly sounds like he has nothing to do with Gaga as they trade verses in what should be a sensual duet. It’s more of a he-said-she-said exchange that hinges on a clever conceit: You can do what you want with her body, but you’ll never control her heart and mind.
Inevitably, though, Gaga remembers she’s Lady Gaga, an ar-teest, and she bogs down the last third of the album with generic misfires. “Donatella” (that would be Versace, the designer) and “Fashion!” are Gaga painting by numbers, being fabulous because that’s what we want from her. Spoken in Valley Girl cadence, the intro on “Donatella” is so insipid, it sounds snatched from Britney Spears’s “Work B**ch”: “I am so fab/ Check it out/ I’m blond/ I’m skinny/ I’m rich/ and I’m a little bit of a bitch.” Yawn.
Yes, her Little Monsters will argue Gaga is taking a political stance on “Donatella” by poking a hole in the trappings of fame. Perhaps it’s a send-up, with Gaga’s tongue firmly in cheek, but it’s also obvious and humorless (and it is never all right to rhyme “OK” with “boulangerie”).
On “Fashion!” – well, that’s all you need to know: The title has an exclamation point in it. It’s the most uninspired song here (the inane “Manicure” runs a close second), an ode to the importance of its subject matter. It will be coming soon to a gay bar near you as an off-the-hook remix.
It turns out the album finds its mission statement in the title track: “My artpop could mean anything/ We could belong together,” Gaga sings with subdued candor. A revelation: When she’s not hitting you over the head, sometimes she can tug at your heart.James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.