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redeyechicago.com

Gaga aims for 'Artpop' but falls short

Greg Kot

2:39 PM CST, November 8, 2013

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'Artpop'

Lady Gaga

2 stars (out of 4)

Lady Gaga – what a tease.

By calling her new album "Artpop" (Streamline/Interscope), Lady Gaga strives to place herself in the middle of a long, disruptive tradition: the multimedia synthesis of Bjork, David Bowie, Madonna and David Byrne, the glitter-funk of LaBelle and Grace Jones, the theatrical dramas of Kate Bush and Tori Amos.

Here was an artist who had sold more than 20 million albums with a flair for offbeat fashion, video and marketing (accentuating her quirks rather than projecting diva-like glamour). Though her music strutted into the mainstream, her personality was anything but. Titling her third studio album "Artpop" suggested she was about to fulfill her promise as a complicated, hit-making weirdo.

But "Artpop" disappoints — a major letdown from an artist who once hinted that she wouldn't be contained by genre, gender or convention.

The album announces its ambitions with the Jeff Koons cover image: a naked Gaga straddles a blue crystal ball against a backdrop of Botticelli's 15th Century masterpiece "The Birth of Venus." The hybrid of the venerated past and the disturbing future presumably speaks to the album's music, which blends the arena-rock moves of Gaga's 2011 album, "Born this Way," with danceclub-ready tracks crafted by hitmakers such as Zedd, Hugo Leclercq and DJ White Shadow (Chicagoan Paul Blair).

For all that firepower, the music is catchy but tame – she's cozying up to chart-topping formulas rather than disrupting them. The flamenco guitar and noir-movie atmospherics of "Aura," the anthemic Meat Loaf-isms of "Gypsy," the Philly soul of "Fashion!" and the jittery synths of "Applause" offer glimpses of the stylistic sprawl Gaga had in mind. But there's way too much that doesn't move the dial beyond its well-defined box: the grinding, squelching electro-dance synths of "Donatella" and "Venus" (partially redeemed by an irresistible ABBA-like chorus), the throw-away hip-hop tag-team rhymes of T.I., Too Short and Twista on "Jewels N' Drugs," the predictable R. Kelly cameo on a track that pleads "Do what you want with my body," the Rick Rubin-produced power ballad "Dope," the robotic gender-bending of "G.U.Y.," the murmured Euro-cabaret of "Sexxx Dreams."

Even more troubling is the sketchy, first-draft feel of the lyrics, whether addressing love/lust or Gaga's pals in the fashion industry. There's nothing much poetic about rhyming "Uranus" with "famous" or declaring, "Walk down the runway but don't puke, you just had a salad today." "Swine" is just as ridiculous as it sounds: "Squealer, squealer, squeal out, you're so disgusting!"

On the title song, Gaga aims for some ambiguity, hinting at the album that could have been. "My artpop could mean anything," she sings. And sometimes it doesn't mean anything at all.

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot