“I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive,” Lady Gaga sings on her new Ariana Grande duet, “Rain On Me.” It’s a timely sentiment: this year has forced many of us to recognize that, while we’d rather our circumstances be different, at least we’re breathing, and able to reflect upon that newfound sense of gratitude.
“Rain On Me” and the rest of Gaga’s new album Chromatica were likely finished before the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to an unexpected standstill — after all, its lead single, “Stupid Love,” was released in late February, back before the words “social” and “distancing” had been smushed together and made to define modern society. Yet the timing of Chromatica still feels uncanny, as if Gaga’s long-awaited return to the dance-pop aesthetic that made her a household name a decade ago only occurred when we most desperately needed that replenishment.
As the unyielding effervescence of both “Stupid Love” and “Rain On Me” suggested, Chromatica is a homecoming for Gaga, following the cowboy-hat detours of 2016’s Joanne and moments of cinematic grandeur from the 2018 soundtrack to A Star Is Born. When Gaga became a superstar at the opening of the 2010s, she did so by challenging the conventions of mainstream presentation, crashing highbrow influences into gripping electro-pop hooks.
Chromatica does not try to reinvent anymore wheels, but after years of diversifying her catalog and conquering different stages, from the Super Bowl halftime show to the Academy Awards, the sound of Gaga hunkering down on giant, juicy choruses remains wildly gratifying, particularly over this collection of house- and techno-tinged songs from producers like BloodPop, Burns and Axwell. There are string-laden instrumental interludes, literary allusions and daring collaborations, but Chromatica’s best moments sound the most effortless, with Gaga’s talent as a songwriter and vocalist presented in its most buoyant form.
It’s also worth noting that, while Chromatica is a universal album, it’s not an impersonal one. Instead of brimming with cookie-cutter anthems full of love, pain or resilience, Gaga packs nearly every song with subtle shades of her vulnerabilities: “Fun Tonight” reflects a mounting disconnection between her professional power and personal sadness, while late highlight “1000 Doves” lets Gaga’s mighty voice deliver a plea for salvation that spills into a shimmering workout. A song like “911” reads like a sleek robo-funk groove, but a closer look reveals an ode to Gaga’s unending struggle for control over her controlled substances. Anyone who dismisses Chromatica as pure dance-floor fluff isn’t paying attention to the flawed, fragile pieces of herself that Gaga tucks into nearly every corner, and uses to add volume to the widescreen moments.
And when those moments do arrive, Gaga makes certain that they land, and that you’ll need to return to them. The drums kicking in midway through the chorus to “Enigma,” Gaga grabbing the baton from K-pop group BLACKPINK on “Sour Candy,” the opening notes to the post-rave triumph “Alice” — they’re all sparks of energy, primed to get you out of a funk or soundtrack a bedroom dance party whenever you’re longing for a gathering this summer.
Part of the reason why Little Monsters have longed for this moment is because Gaga’s propulsive early singles, from “Just Dance” to “Bad Romance” to “Poker Face,” often captured an unadulterated feeling of bliss, a base thrill that pop diehards long to experience. With Chromatica, Gaga has offered that elixir — a summer dance-pop escape of the highest quality — at a time when we could use as many shots of it as possible.