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.
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