It is hard to remember the last time anyone made an album quite like Born This Way. The sound of it – a mix of high-octane industrial techno and euro-pop with a heavy Bruce Springsteen influence – is unusual, for a start. Then there is the subject matter – immigration laws, death, spirituality, prostitution, love and stardom –and the fact that, in a world of artists who turn up to a studio and sing whatever their A&R man says they should sing, this is a completely artist-driven pop LP. This really is a most peculiar album; an uncompromising, fearless set of songs that’s also designed to sell – and will sell – millions of units.

Lady Gaga’s imperial phase began in 2009, when her record label demanded a couple of tracks to chuck on to a deluxe-edition re-release of The Fame. Her response was to deliver The Fame Monster, an eight-track standalone concept album. For the deluxe artwork she insisted on a new Hedi Slimane shoot, a gothic black-and-white anti-beauty shot of Gaga in a black wig, bleeding tar from one eye. It was a jarring but beautiful image but the Monster disc was no grand folly; it featured Bad Romance, which propelled her into the pop stratosphere. In the eyes of the media and many fans, her untouchable reign, brief but spectacular, ended in February this year when the lead track from this album – the single “Born This Way” – failed to live up to expectations. But while Lady Gaga gets it wrong sometimes, she gets it right in such a way that the shadow she casts across the rest of pop seems almost unfairly long and dark.

Strip away the bacon frocks and the tunes are all in check. There are some flashes of an extraordinary talent from Gaga, just 25 but still only 23 when some of this album was written and recorded. Euphoric-sounding belter “Edge Of Glory,” inspired by the death of her grandfather, is about the moment just before death when you realize that you’ve won at life, and features E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons. It’s not the only song with nods to pop history – since THE WORD’S listening session in March Brian May has been added to one of the songs, while another tune not available to hear as THE WORD went to press (“Yoü & I,” a ballad she’s been performing live) was delayed because Gaga was waiting for Mutt Lange to step in and produce.

“Hair” is the second of three Bruce-goes-raving numbers to capture the album’s strange but seductive spirit, the instruments and electronics conjuring an atmosphere that, like Gaga herself, feels both authentic and synthesized. In the chorus Gaga sings, “This is my prayer, that I will die living just as free as my hair”. It seems, at first listen, like a fantastically facile analogy – there goes Gaga with her ridiculous haircut! – and it works splendidly on that level if that’s all you are after. Then Gaga contextualizes it with tales of her Catholic-school education – strict haircut rules and all – and this riotous pop tune written from the perspective of a liberated adult starts to feel like an It’s A Sin of the digital age. Pop shouldn’t need a directors commentary of course, and “Hair” works just as well as a big stupid pop song, but how fantastic to know that this is pop with something going on under the hood.

There are similarly thoughtful songs across the rest of the album – political techno spook-fest “Government Hooker,” Mary Magdelene-inspired electronic ballad “Bloody Mary,” immigration-law smack down “Americano” – and it’s all very refreshing, but putting thankfulness to one side for a moment, the real question is, and always has to be: are the tunes any good? Well, they are very good indeed. “Marry The Night” feels like a Whitney Houston tune and most recent single “Judas” even has hints of Abba, which has prompted some critics to say that it’s chorus was “too pop”. Accusing Lady Gaga of being too pop feels a bit like accusing a brick of being too brick-like, and either way tough luck because right now it feels like she “is” pop, and Born This Way offers ample substance to back up a shed load of style.

Lady Gaga is considering releasing nine singles from this album, an ambitious idea, but given the breadth of material on offer here, not a silly one. The finished article is likely to be imperfect – it’s been a quarter of a century since a Brian May axe solo was an attractive prospect – but it already feels like Born This Way is a landmark pop album.


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