Perhaps understandably, Lady Gaga has had a hard time making music that matches the size of her persona. Debut LP The Fame, led by run-of-the-mill singles "Just Dance" and "Poker Face," was catchy but unremarkable, seeming more interesting in the glow of Gaga's fashion-forward look and art school background. Her formidable vocal chops got their due on the diverse, melody-driven The Fame Monster EP, but follow-up Born This Way — anticipated by fans and critics as a grand statement — felt oddly complacent, recycling the sound of the EP and seemingly favouring the performance of Gaga over songwriting verve.
Enter ARTPOP, on which opener "Aura" asks, "Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?" It's a tantalizing line, if a bit of a red herring; as its title suggests, While ARTPOP is as much about the performance of Gaga as ever, this time, she's finally matched her outsized personality with the dynamic songwriting and production they demand.
"Venus" is an updated, superior "LoveGame," on which Gaga confidently struts from hook to hook as if relying on just one had gone out of fashion; "Sexxx Dreams" starts hesitantly, but as the lyrics describe mounting sexual tension, the pressure builds to a chorus that explodes with panning synth stabs and a funked-up, slapped bassline; "Swine" finds Gaga screeching "Squeal, oh, you're so disgusting" with such palpable repugnance that you feel like the target of her righteous scorn.
Like all good pop albums, ARTPOP is defined by tension and release, but unpredictably so; rather than hanging entire songs on a single hooky chorus, Gaga distinguishes each song with a series of captivating moments that draw the listener in and then linger, culminating satisfyingly in a memorable heap by the end of each track and demanding another listen.
ARTPOP's few weak points stem from a lack of editing: Gaga is utterly insignificant on the T.I.-, Too Short- and Twista-featuring trap banger (and album flow-disrupter) "Jewels n' Drugs," while the generic, Katy Perry-esque power ballad "Gypsy" interferes with the dramatic one-two of "Dope" and perfect closer "Applause."
Still, ARTPOP is a dynamic, memorable album that, while it fails to unveil the girl behind the aura, reveals a performer who finally sounds as invested in her art as she is in her image. (Interscope)