“Born This Way” is a great album. Let’s just get that out of the way first. Does the music sound like it was made by a person who Forbes just announced as the most powerful living celebrity? Probably not. Does it push forward new concepts in sound that are equal to the daring fashion choices that Gaga flaunts visually? Not even close.
But “Born This Way” is an achievement in that it provides a statement of who Gaga is that successfully expands upon what we already know. The songs that have already leaked (and had already taken quite a few knocks for not exactly re-inventing the wheel) sound stronger within the context of the work as a whole.
Gaga is obviously a big personality. She is already compelling enough that anybody who signs up for Twitter begins by following her (kinda like a democratically elected Tom from MySpace). But what becomes clear from listening to these songs in their proper order is that she is still discovering this personality, and she seems quite dedicated in her search.
She digs up a lot of sounds we’ve heard before, but instead of sounding like copies of the stars she grew up loving, she comes across more like a scholar, borrowing a keyboard sound from Janet Jackson here, a hoot from Whitney Houston there, and a conceit from Madonna everywhere. (Yeah, there’s a second song on here that recalls “Express Yourself.”) And oddly amongst the allusions to divas past, there are even some guitars that sound nicked from ZZ Top! (Listen to “Electric Chapel.”) But it seems like she’s borrowing these sounds not because she wants to imitate these artists, but because she knows what the effect will be. And the fact that “Fashion of His Love” shares more than a passing similarity to “Express Yourself” may be a case where the melody is meant to echo the same one that she borrowed for the “Born This Way” track.
Gaga digs deeper lyrically than she ever has before and deeper than a majority of the songs that are most frequently heard in dance clubs. A quick glance at the lyric sheet reveals that almost every single song includes at least one of the following words; holy, prayer, sinner or Jesus. Granted, one of those songs is about having a religious experience on a fashion runway. “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion” ends with the controversial(?) statement that “Jesus is the new black.”
Having this sort of fun is an important part of enjoying the “Born This Way” album. Yes, Lady Gaga has a lot of this responsibility heaped upon her, through her awards, buzzillion Twitter followers and other accolades, but she never necessarily asked for any of it. And though it doesn’t seem like this awareness has tarnished her new album, she is at least aware of it enough to use her influence by spreading a positive message to all who do look to her as a role model, with the “believe in yourself” theme popping up in several tunes.
The songwriting is strong and the hooks are anthemic, and if you can hear these songs together coming through kickass speakers without pumping your fists above your head, then you probably came to this album looking for something different. Among the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition is a “Country Road Version” of the title track complete with a dirty slide guitar and a down-home harmonica. This doesn’t seem like the choice of an artist who is trying to challenge her listeners as much as have fun with them. And if they don’t go into this album expecting a redefining statement of music, listeners will have fun with Gaga.