If anyone was going to send a love letter to disco and house music at a time when going to the club feels about as alien as wearing a dress made of cleaved meat, it’d be Lady Gaga. Although she initially had reservations about putting out Chromatica at the start of pandemic shutdowns, there’s something comforting about the way the album captures the feeling of banging your feet on a sweaty dance floor and bumping into strangers during the loneliest, most isolated moment in history. It might not have been her intention when she recorded the album, which signals a return to her electro-pop roots, but between her hopeful choruses and floorboard-thumping beats, she has captured the longing for togetherness that people are now feeling while wearing headphones, squinting into their webcams, and dancing alone in their basements.
In the decade or so since Gaga introduced herself with “Just Dance,” she’s drifted from big-haired pop ingenue to jazz chanteuse to lite-rock balladeer to Hollywood belter, but with few exceptions, she’s best when she drops the guises and gets personal. On Chromatica, her sixth album, she shows off all the sides of herself that made people fall in love with her in the first place: She’s a romantic, a ham, a truth teller, a gossip, a flirt, and, most often, a woman who needs healing after being hurt too many times. Her goal may still be to just dance, but she seems more three-dimensional this time, more human than the “Fame Monster” title she gave herself all those years ago.
When the lyrics “All I ever wanted was love” bubble up on lead single “Stupid Love,” it sounds like a fresh revelation. When she declares “I’m still something if I don’t got a man,” on the single-ladies anthem “Free Woman,” it’s bold. And when she serenely tells herself “I’m not perfect yet, but I’ll keep trying” on “1000 Doves,” it’s like a breakthrough. You wouldn’t guess it from the cover art, which looks like an illustration torn from an old issue of Heavy Metal magazine, but Chromatica generally feels like therapy pop made by someone in search of an emotional breakthrough, and it rarely feels disingenuous, since dance music is the only vehicle that could deliver her over the edge of glory.
Two years after the TV series Pose pushed the world of late-Eighties/early-Nineties ballroom culture back into the mainstream, the record finds Lady Gaga reveling in the worlds of club music and voguing. Chromatica isn’t the only album to come out this year with a straight through-line back to the hypercolor Nineties — Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia leans beautifully on disco and synth-pop — but Gaga’s feels more deferential, more well-rounded as she reclaims the whooshing strings, horn spikes, and jump-roping beats and recasts them in her image.
At this point in her career, Gaga knows her signature moves, and she and her producers — a who’s who of pop and EDM luminaries, including BloodPop, Axwell, Max Martin, and even Skrillex — introduce new hooks about every other second, making for a fun and satisfying listen throughout. The album’s first real song, “Alice,” which follows the first of three easily skippable orchestral “Chromatica” interludes, opens with the chorus, “My name isn’t Alice, but I’ll keep looking for Wonderland,” which she sweetens with “ahhs” and an “oh ma-ma-ma” stutter that calls back to the “Ra-ra-roma-ma” of “Bad Romance.” It’s all different flavors of ear candy from there. “Rain on Me,” a duet with Ariana Grande about surviving a rough patch, echoes Nineties R&B with a stronger beat, “Sour Candy” mixes house with hip-hop yelps and K-pop bubblegum, thanks to an assist from the girl group Blackpink, and “Replay” bridges disco and deep house with time-warping beats as Gaga sings “The scars on my mind are on replay.”
She’s at her best, though, when taking musical risks, like on the New Wave-y “911,” which splits the difference between the Buggles and Kraftwerk, filtered through Gaga’s kaleidoscope, and on her duet with Elton John, “Sine From Above,” which has enough drama and funky synths to make it prog-pop. The two singers’ voices blend so beautifully, as they sing about acoustical physics (punning sine waves with “sign”), that it could prompt a spike in sales of oscilloscopes.
But on the other hand, as is often the case with Gaga, she stumbles when she gets too conceptual. “Plastic Doll,” a fantasy in which she uses a Barbie as a metaphor for her fragility in love (“I’m no toy for a real boy”), feels like too much of a stretch compared with the rest of the record’s more real-life personal epiphanies, and the closing track, “Babylon,” with its regrettable lyrics about spilling the tea with your friends, and the near-plagiaristic “Vogue” rap (seriously, just sing “Bette Davis, we love you” along with any of Gaga-donna’s lyrics and it syncs perfectly), deserves an Old Testament fate. It’s as if all the drama around “Born This Way” never happened. But those are just the shallows.
Mostly, Gaga has focused Chromatica’s spectrum on the kind of body-moving music that comes naturally to her. Dance music will always be her salvation, and her pop renaissance couldn’t come at a better time.