Album Review

Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster (Album Review)

fame-monster

As Torrance Shipman once said in the 2000 classic, Bring It On, “Missy’s the poo…so take a big whiff.”

While that quote doesn’t really apply here (aside from suggesting that Gaga is indeed ‘the poo’), the point is this: As the driving force behind the writing and recording process of her music, the creative director of her album artwork, music videos, tour visuals, merchandising and just about every other minute facet of her career, Lady Gaga is a very new kind of pop star; one that sings live, writes and records, dances, styles photoshoots, and waxes poetic about the lifestyle of the artiste.

While many have managed to break the market on their own terms, I can’t think of a single mainstream female pop artist in recent times who has exercised nearly as much creative control in both the audio and visual department as Lady Gaga.

In fact, I can’t think of any.

November 23 will see the release of Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, an 8-track concept album originally intended to be a re-release of her debut, The Fame. Written as a kind of antithesis to the subject matter of The Fame, The Fame Monster centers around horror and fears–from love, to loneliness, to death.

After some squabbles with her label (and a few inspired writing sessions while out on her Fame Ball Tour), Lady Gaga decided that this newly formed collection of tracks was enough of a living creature in its own right to merit release into the wild all on its own, rather than being slapped onto her pre-existing album. Of course, you could opt to purchase the album as a 2-CD bundle, but as a whole, the record is capable of standing on its own feet–however many feet a monster may have.

Now then, let’s run down the tracklisting.

The Fame Monster begins with “Bad Romance,” the current single that continues to power its way up the radio play charts. Better known as the song of 2009, “Bad Romance” is an unstoppable barrage of catchy hooks, hymn-like chants, and soaring crescendos. It’s a raw, raucous affair, best served at max volume in cars and clubs, and arguably the greatest track that Gaga has ever recorded.  Starting off with such a praise-worthy number, it’s fairly easy to forget that “Bad Romance” is just the first song off of the album.

“Alejandro” comes next, an Ace of Base-like mid-tempo, tropical track. While my reaction to the track was initially lukewarm after hearing the song in demo form, the album’s revamp adds a nice punch to the mix, creating a solid introduction and some reworked vocals. Watch out, though–the repetitive melody is addicting, and you may find that the song’s play count racks up faster than you can say “Alejandro,” “Fernando,” or any other man-of-Latin-origin’s nombre.

“Don’t call me Gaga,” Lady G announces as “Monster” begins to play. At this point, there’s really no need to progress any further into the album, as Gaga’s about to nail it: “Monster” is the epitome of the album’s essence, mashing a killer bass line with cheeky, creature feature lyricism: “We french kissed on a subway train / He tore my clothes right off / He ate my heart, and then he ate my brain,” Gaga laments during the song’s massive, glitchy (perhaps even picopop inspired?) breakdown. It’s a major hit, and is pretty much destined to be an upcoming single sometime soon.

“Speechless,” the next song on the album, comes with plenty of baggage in the Gaga Claims Department over the past few months, with “My favorite song of all” and “The greatest song I ever recorded” being just a few of the quotes offered up by the pop star during interviews. As one might imagine, the song has built a substantial amount of hype.

Mercifully it delivers, and the pay off is rich: “Speechless” is the ’70’s power rock ballad that always been hinted at in her earlier work (“Brown Eyes”, “Again Again”), though never fully realized until now. Penned for her father, “Speechless” is the result of Lady Gaga’s appreciation for the arena-rock legends and glam gods of yore (David Bowie, Freddie Mercury) that avoids imitation and plays like the torch ballad Gaga always needed. It may not be the greatest ‘hit’ of the album, but it is the most aurally adventurous (and surely the most personal). “I’ll never talk again / Oh boy, you’ve left me speechless,” Gaga croons with a swagger hitting somewhere between classic Elton John and Liza Minnelli. Concertgoers, be prepared–this one’s made for the lighters-in-the-air moment.

Coming in thereafter is “Dance in the Dark,” the album’s chilliest moment. “Silicone, saline, poison, inject me / Baby, I’m a free bitch,” Gaga scowls at the song’s beginning, which happens to double as the greatest opening line of the year. A hands-in-the-air dance song about a woman being harassed by her boyfriend, Gaga’s “Dance” is a murderous slice of pop complete with industrial whirls, haunted synths and occasional screams of anguish in the distance.

Part of the songs appeal, aside from being as danceable as it is dark (thus, “Dance in the Dark”…get it, eh?), lies in its occasional nods to the classics–from the  pulsating injection of Depeche Mode‘s “Strangelove” into the opening chords to its homage to Madonna‘s “Vogue” throughout the song’s spoken word middle eight:  “Marilyn, Judy, Sylvia…tell ’em how you feel, girls!”

However unlike Madge’s celebrity roll-call, Gaga limits her subjects according to theme, choosing only those who’ve suffered a tragic end by way of, or indirectly because of, the fame. By the end of it all, you’ll want to know only one thing: Who knew emotional abuse could inspire such happy feet?

The next track, “Telephone,” is a doozy–a duet with Beyonce? Even on print, you’re already asking for trouble. “Telephone” was originally penned and serviced to Britney Spears by Gaga, rejected, and then reclaimed by the writer herself.

Along with a beat recalling Timbaland‘s “The Way I Are” and a frantic, stuttering electro-bass line, “Telephone” is a mish-mosh of synths, phone sounds and above all, rampant telephone talk. While Beyonce’s vocal runs are a welcome addition to the track, the song functions best as an unapologetic celebration of the vocoder. Just dance, as someone around here might say.

“So Happy I Could Die” seems to pick up where The Fame‘s “Starstruck” left off, borrowing its squeaky synthesizers and urban flavoring to engage in some self-indulgence. “In the silence of the night, through all the tears and all the lies / I touch myself and its alright.” While some reviews have likened the track to Britney Spears‘ “Touch of My Hand,” the music and lyrics seem far too dark to place “Happy” in the same realm as Spears’ ode to self-exploration. As the verses fade, the unusual anti-chorus fills the void: “Happy in the club with a bottle of red wine / Stars in our eyes ’cause we’re having a good time / Yeah, yeah / So happy I could die.”

Minimal and moody, “Happy” provides food for the mind while moving back and forth between Gaga and an unidentified “she.” It could be herself she’s referencing, but I’m still uncertain. Sasha Gaga, perhaps?

“Teeth,” the album’s premature closer, takes a surprising turn in sound: A stomping, hoot-and-holler-worthy chant-along, the final track of The Fame Monster invites listeners to cut loose and…well, sink their teeth into the music. Part musical, part country, and a little bit tribal in spots, Gaga snarls and taunts above an incessant, stomping march: “Take a bite of my bad girl meat / Show me your teeth.”  It’s an odd choice to end the album, though a surefire crowd pleaser for live shows if the addictive backing beat is anything to judge by.

Out of the eight excellent tracks of the album, the greatest part about listening to The Fame Monster is not the catchy beats or silly lyrics (of which there are many), or even the lock of Gaga’s own hair included with the Super Deluxe Fan Edition (with which I still have no idea what to do with)–it’s the fact that the album is history in the making.

For better or worse, Gaga is on the path of legendary status:  With only one album under her belt, Lady Gaga has already broken a world record for most #1 singles from a debut album, written for Britney Spears, Keri Hilson and the Pussycat Dolls, collaborated with high-profile photographers and artists including David LaChapelle, Araki, and Markus Klinko (which is not to forget her sheer influence on the runway, as well as scoring the devotion from runway legends like Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs). Along the way, she’s performed across the world to millions from San Francisco to Jerusalem, including a recent concert in New York where a newfound fan named Madonna watched along with her daughter, Lourdes, in the audience.

While I may be prone to hyperbole, I do believe that The Fame Monster is without a doubt the pop album of the year, if not one of the finest pop records of the decade.

And to think, this was just going to be a re-release.

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