Whew, didn’t this album come out months ago?
Amazingly, no: Lady Gaga’s hotly anticipated third album, “Born This Way,” has been relentlessly hyped — the track listing reveal! the cover art reveal! the bar code reveal! — and finally sees its official release Monday, concluding a long and thus far not overly satisfying build-up. Gaga’s legions of fans, the “little monsters,” have been holding out for their heroine since the singles began their march of carefully orchestrated leaks nearly five months ago.
What have they been holding out for? More singles, it turns out.
“Born This Way” isn’t an album as much as an hourlong playlist of proposed new singles, perhaps no surprise from a performer more deft at crafting $1.29 confections than full-price meals. She’s certainly adept at it — seven monster hits (“Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance” etc.) from her first two records, with the singles outselling the albums nearly four times over — and this new batch is wildly ambitious compared to the previous two.
Unified only by a still-vague notion of inclusiveness — and a string of reminders that she, Stefani Germanotta, 25, is a naughty, naughty girl (“I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south,” she purrs in “Heavy Metal Lover”) — these individual nuggets beat us about the head with the kind of bombastic, over-reaching production we’re used to from Elton John, Guns ‘N Roses or especially Bonnie Tyler. Some are fun, some are absurd, but few achieve a level of artistry or even personality equal to the deafening volume of their sheer pop cultural noise.
Even without the lingering criticism of the title track’s litigation-ready echo of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” the “Born This Way” album plays like a souped-up, muscle-car rebuild of “The Immaculate Collection,” Madonna’s 1990 singles compilation. The ratio is about equal of semi-religious button-pushers, shameless gay culture co-opts, simplistic ’80s pop and resuscitated Eurodisco. It’s as if she’s made a greatest-hits concept album.
Gaga filches from Madonna in many ways, not just musically. Most of her major influences, in fact, including Bowie and Queen (her stage name comes from their hit “Radio Gaga”), excelled at being indirect figureheads for non-traditional personalities. Madonna embraced and was embraced by gay culture, namely because she employed a friendlier approach. Gaga, however, outright tells us we’re second-class outsiders, coming on throughout the now-overexposed title track like a stern nun from her private Catholic school youth in Manhattan, rapping our knuckles and preaching her gospel to an all-inclusive (and commercially robust) demographic of anyone who’s ever felt the slightest bit marginalized by the very mainstream Gaga now lords over.
While her “I’m OK, you’re OK” shtick is an important basic message, particularly among younger listeners — and her lyrics on this album also address bullying as well as empowering women (instructing them, in the Teutonic “Scheie,” not to be “objectified by what men say is right“) — her application of it is annoyingly didactic. As a gay man myself, I can tell you I’m beyond weary of this hanger-on insisting she’s my unelected cultural ambassador, particularly when her knowledge of gay culture — even the idea that there’s much left to be co-opted — seems so remarkably shallow. Madonna didn’t present the idea that gay people were freaks and outsiders requiring anyone’s stewardship. She was ahead of her time in that regard, while Gaga’s identity politics seem very 20th century.
The music on “Born This Way” is certainly pre-Y2K, borrowing from so many sources that she effectively contradicts her lyrical mantra of being yourself. That doesn’t mean some tunes aren’t fun. Most choruses reach Def Leppard heights of hysteria, and the bookends — the well-developed opener “Marry the Night” (dig the funky, Chaka Khan breakdown as it ends!) and anthemic closer “The Edge of Glory” — are Meatloaf-worthy theatrical juggernauts. “Bad Kids,” a simplistic and dull ode to juvenile delinquents, sounds remarkably like Debbie Gibson, while the dark “Government Hooker” apes Wax Trax!-style industrial slamming. “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” is an over-the-top road anthem, full of pounding, wet drums and reaching a Springsteen-esque, organ-driven climax. (Mother of all oddities, “Born This Way” also features several inconsequential sax solos from wayward E Streeter Clarence Clemons.) It’s a colorful collage, complete with a Latin anthem, “Americano” (the album’s “La Isla Bonita”). Gaga doesn’t create as much as she curates.
From underneath all this overproduced muck, Gaga’s powerful voice occasionally breaks free. Some of the strangest songs on “Born This Way” work best to showcase her vocal talents, especially the way she bends words around the scale like balloon animals in “Government Hooker” (“hah-ah-ah-ker!“) and “Judas” (that squawking “Ju-dah-ah-ahs!” after each ABBA-like chorus). Near the end of the album are two songs that relieve some of the vocal pressure, and Gaga slips into them warmly for great effect. “Electric Chapel” folds metal guitars into satiny grooves at a gentle pace, allowing Gaga to calmly deliver her most pleasant — and finally sexy — vocals on the album. After her meat dresses and Nubian eggs, she sounds as comfy as a pair of plain ol’ jeans as she sings “You and I,” a bar-band ballad about a boy from Nebraska that’s been staple of her concert set for a year. On record, this chestnut gets country-rock harmony vocals and layered guitars worthy of Boston’s Tom Scholz.
After its release, “Born This Way” no doubt will unseat Adele’s stubborn hold on Billboard’s No. 1 slot. The soulful young British singer’s “21” has been the year’s Cinderella story, hitting No. 1, then backing off but returning to the top again and again throughout the spring. It’s an album with power balladry almost as bombastic as “Born This Way,” but it caught on because of its soulful sincerity and naked honesty. Gaga’s album has no gravitas to compete with that, and as Adele’s tour winds around this country — arriving Tuesday at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre — justice would be served if “21” leap-frogged “Born This Way” to be back on top by mid-June.