The expectations for "ARTPOP," Lady Gaga's first full album of new material in two years, were almost as high as the singer recently admitted to being. (She told radio host Elvis Duran earlier this week that during a period of "pot addiction" she was smoking 15 to 20 joints per day).
It may be because in 2013, the way to release an album is to drop it on fans with very little warning. Where some of 2013's best albums, like "Yeezus" or "Reflektor," came with scarce and cryptic details leading up to their releases, Gaga surprisingly went the traditional route, leaking major spoilers to her little monsters almost every step of the way.
That said, "ARTPOP" almost delivers. Almost. On its own it's a fine dance pop album; but this is Gaga we're talking about and there are expectations.
She begins singing in a spooky voice against a spastic acoustic guitar and a twangy electric guitar. The first words we hear her sing on this first song, "Aura," are, "I killed my former and left her in the trunk off Highway 10." There are howls in the background and the guitar and voice seem to drift in and out of various states of consciousness before the dancey synth drums that define much of Gaga's work kick in.
This is such a great, strong opening that it almost seems like Gaga is finally ready to deliver musically on the weirdness she presents visually. She killed her former? So the dance diva is gone and she's reinvented herself? Awesome! This could be really interesting!
But then the song breaks into a "Do you wanna see me naked, lover" refrain that basically ruins everything she had already established. She didn't kill her former. She just kept her former silent for the first 20 seconds of the song.
Towards the end of that song, a robotic voice recites "Dance, sex, ARTPOP, tech" and that's basically the chemical breakdown of this album. And if you take the album at that level, it works great. It's an arty pop album that features songs about sex that you're supposed to dance to.
However, the most affecting moment comes toward the end of the album, and it doesn't include any of these tenets. "Dope" will likely be a fourth single from this album this spring and have a really powerful video; her voice has never sounded so honest and raw, and this deserves to be a sleeper hit.
"I need you more than dope," she sings against fuzzy synth bass and ballady chords that middle schoolers are probably already asking their piano teachers to teach them.
At their best, the songs on "ARTPOP" are banging dance numbers with skewering commentary and funny wordplay ("Swine" and "G.U.Y."), but at their worst feel like they should be sung by Cher on a boat or be played during a strip club scene in a "Beverly Hills Cop" movie ("Sexxx Dreams" and "Mary Jane Holland").
Criticisms aside, all of these songs really lend themselves to live performance. The lyrics are extremely quotable and the beats are extremely fist-pumpable. To say nothing of how cool the album cover will look as a concert T-shirt. And as Gaga clearly states in one of the album's first singles, she lives for the applause. Maybe that's why she leaked "ARTPOP" a little bit at a time — she couldn't stand the silence of a sneak attack.