Born This Way (Streamline/Universal)
If the problem with Lady Gaga is writ large on this record, it’s because everything on Born This Way is scaled up so massively. In the same way that the title track broadens its empowerment message to finally include a shout-out to the transgendered among us, Gaga has simultaneously expanded the general delirium on Born This Way in all directions at once.
The basic musical building block is electronic Euro-pap amped up to brain-melting levels of intensity and then married to the bizarre and often inscrutable Gaga world-view. Thus she riffs on sex with JFK as “Government Hooker” splits itself into a thousand little Aphex Twin–like shards, and we get the hilarious juxtaposition of Giorgio Moroder with tales of whisky-breath cunnilingus in “Heavy Metal Lover”. And what’s with the grim chorus of Teutons in “Bloody Mary”? Why are they there, except to conjure the image of Speedo-clad Aryan beefcake in a song that’s already certain to jerk the knees of the Christian right? (Same goes for the hymn to Christ-killing lust, “Judas”.)
Whatever the hell Gaga’s thinking in moments like these, at least it’s entertaining as hell in a dementedly trashy kind of way. Madonna might have thrown away the rule book, but she was never so funny or reckless as to gene-splice ’80s freedom rock with Art of Noise, and then throw a fucking mythical flying horse in for good measure, as Gaga does on “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)”.
But aside from some of the busiest production we’ve heard since Axl Rose brought democracy to China, too many of the 14 tracks on Born This Way resolve into all-too-plain club-banger choruses, or simply expire as mad experiments that should have been incinerated when nobody was looking. Clarence Clemons is shoehorned into “Hair” for whatever it is he signifies inside Gaga’s private universe, not for what the E Street sax man brings to the song (nothing). He fares much better in the magnificent and appropriately overcooked “Edge of Glory”, while Queen’s Brian May shows up on the album’s best track, “Yoí¼ and I”, where Gaga leaves the disco behind and hits the hard top with a full-on Pat Benatar by way of Def Leppard power ballad (produced by Mutt Lange, no less).
Those two tracks help to save an album that falters only in relation to its enormous ambition. You can sense that Gaga is breaking her back to make an epic statement with Born This Way, and you have to admire that she’s figuring out how to play to the arenas full of dispossessed freaks and little monsters she sees in her future. Flaws included, it’s a vision preferable to that of a stadium full of U2 fans.