Lady Gaga, ARTPOP
So much for that high-concept, post-modern ingenuity that ARTPOP promised even before Lady Gaga hawked it as the album of not the year, not the decade, but of the millennium. This isn’t that album. Not even close. Not when it comes to the innovativeness it touted, anyway. If this is art, so is “Poker Face.” And so is dressing up in a frock made of dead cow. This is Gaga to the extreme; everything is done with more cartoonish flamboyancy, and – if it’s even possible at this point – exaggerated to the fullest. But while Born This Way was at least, despite its exhausting preachiness, an evolution that demonstrated sophisticated vanguard where self-importance at least felt musically validated, this takes three steps back. Neither as clever nor avant-garde as it thinks it is, ARTPOP is a straightforward, ’80s-fashioned electro-pop piece that, with a satirical edge, riffs on fame, drugs and other vapidness – the very themes of queen Gaga before she led her misunderstood Monsters down the road to empowerment. With B-52s camp, “Donatella” and “Fashion!” fit the homo bill, and they’re both amusing … if you too were amused by the unintentional awesomeness of Showgirls. Part horror show, part whore show, ARTPOP is gaudy (see “Swine,” where this meat obsession of hers translates into metaphor), but it’s hard to turn away from something that tries so hard to be tacky and messy and just so … weird. Even an R. Kelly cameo, on “Do What U Want,” seems out there – and then it all comes together pretty perfectly. But it’s “Dope,” a rollicking power ballad that endears, and the smashing Springsteenian “Gypsy” that our Mother Monster should keep in mind next time she tries to hustle pop music as high art.
Arcade Fire, Reflektor
Not long into Arcade Fire’s 80-minute epic of rhythmic mythology – where themes of rebirth thrive amidst the usual sociopolitical go-tos – is an empowering statement of visibility that can’t help but be heard as a queer affirmation. With frontman Win Butler championing the oppressed, the song is called “We Exist,” but it’s not the only one that’s outcast-minded: David Bowie vibes pipe through the garage-rockery of outsider anthem “Normal Person,” a challenge to societal conformity. But the Montreal troupe doesn’t just tackle the bigger picture; they look inward and tear down their own conventions – their own “normal.” Reflektor breaks the band’s rules, abandoning the Neil Young-inspired ’70s sounds of The Suburbs, their Grammy-winning LP and last release, for an adventuresome, dance-inspired work that radically shifts from quintessential Arcade Fire. With former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on board as producer, Reflektor breaks into the dance-punk that is Murphy’s forte, winding up somewhere in the realm of the band’s older “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” an electro triumph. Here, a frantic parade of noise simmers into a charged punk anthem on the defiant “Joan of Arc,” disco-era strings line the slow-burn of “Porno,” and “Afterlife” – with Butler and wife Régine Chassagne’s poignant exchanges, also heard on the transcendent standout “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” – is a euphoric jaunt of survival on the album’s back, and better, half.
Mason Jennings, Always Been
There’s always been a refreshing lack of sentimentality to Mason Jennings’ sweetness. On the Minneapolis folkie’s 10th album, he again avoids Hallmark triteness despite delivering songs that are among some of his most sensitive – and also, his best. “Patti and Robert” is a powerful portrait of love inspired by the punk poet’s relationship to Robert Mapplethorpe, and “Dreaming” evokes the simple-but-tenderhearted classics of the ’60s. Less melancholic than his usual sad-man sounds, this is Jennings’ most consistently melodic release. He should be happy more often.
Avril Lavigne, Avril Lavigne
Avril Lavigne can’t quite figure out if she’s ready to grow up. After a modest expression of adult-ish emotions on 2011’s Goodbye Lullaby, it’s back to being the badass. Before the album’s chanty single, “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” the feisty Canadian pop-rocker, at nearly 30, is all teen-rebel boasts on “Rock N Roll.” Both songs don’t do anything to advance Avril’s artistic image, but they’re nowhere as excruciating as the big, ugly ballad featuring Nickelback frontman/husband Chad Kroeger, “Let Me Go” … or just about anything else during the rest of this identity crisis.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.