Though Lady Gaga’s LG5 project was a much-hyped one only a month ago, it’s all but fallen by the wayside since first single “Perfect Illusion” dropped (and tanked) in September and left even the most rabid fans (not to mention the general public — hello, No. 84 position on iTunes) wanting. Listeners clicked “Play” wanting a “Bad Romance” or “Just Dance,” and instead got the anxiety-inducing, runaway train that is “Perfect Illusion” — a serviceable song, sure, but too frenetic to warrant repeat listens. Unless frenetic’s your thing; then feel free to bask in your eye-twitchy neurosis and have at it.
But hold it; she’s not totally lost her mojo — really.
Mama Monster, gratefully, graced us with a more digestible song prior to her Joanne album release this Friday, what very much feels like an attempt to reassure fans that she’s not releasing an album of try-hard, synthy alt-rock. “Million Reasons,” a stripped-down, twangy ballad, is Gaga at her least theatrical — which, to be honest, is still pretty theatrical — and most coherent. On it, she croons about a dark love she so desperately clings to, wailing in a chorus that’s surely one of her best, serving up some country heartbreak that takes us back and drops a few tears on our guitars like T-Swift.
“When I bow down to pray
Try to make the worst seem better
Lord show me the way
Cut through all this worn-out leather
I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away
But baby I just need one good one to stay“
So, yeah. It’s pretty good. And certainly, as far as her ballads go, an improvement upon the whiny “Dope” from ARTPOP. If anyone even remembers it. (Bless your loyalty if you do.)
In the spirit of the release of “Million Reasons” and her kinda-sorta return to form for her ballads, below are five of her most sterling ballad creations — ranked.
1) “The Edge of Glory.” Yes, it’s debatable whether this anthem qualifies as a ballad, but given that it’s about Gags’ dead grandfather and is a power-ballad-esque hat-tip to life’s free fall into death, it fits pretty snugly in the category. Defined by its excellent smooth jazz influences and an all-the-feels solo by the late Clarence Clemens, this is lightning in a bottle as far as disco power ballads go. It’s an effort she came very close to recapturing with ARTPOP‘s “Gypsy,” but still fell just short. Five years later, this is still the Gaga ballad to beat, and we’re still dancing on our fire escapes.
2) “Speechless.” About the fear of dying (particularly the fear of her father dying), “Speechless” is some of her best songwriting — not just constructing the song well, but delivering each line with the suspense and pause that makes each moment worth savoring. But, in truth, what makes this such a standout is her top-notch performance of it in a live setting. See: Her fiery (literally) performance at the American Music Awards in 2010. It might be most significant as the first true showcase of what she’s capable of with ballads.
3) “Million Reasons.” A twist of expectations for Gaga, what’s refreshing about “Million Reasons” is how straightforward it is. Its songwriting is clever, if gimmicky, and doesn’t fall into the common Gaga-ballad trap of trying to insert too many flourishes — vocal or otherwise. It’s a Gaga ballad that has legs when stripped of all the glossy synth production so typically added to her work, which is a testament to the song’s strength on its own. It’s also a much stronger foray into country for her than that regrettable “Born This Way (Country Road Version)” production. You could almost imagine shedding a tear to it over a shot of whisky at a bar in Nashville — not an easy accomplishment, for a pop star known for cranking out electro-pop club hits.
4) “Gypsy.” The buildup of “Gypsy” provides a satisfying listening experience that’s a perfect storm of production fusions (folksy but undeniably electronic) and lyrical switch-ups toward the end. In a sense, consider it a precursor to the country sound of “Million Reasons” but a followup to the power-ballad Europop anthem “Edge of Glory.” It’s a happy medium between the two. Its sound is also probably a product of her friendship with Elton John — and that’s very much OK.
5) “You and I.” Let’s be honest: This one will probably be the stomp-and-clap anthem she pulls out for her Super Bowl performance in February, and for good reason: It’s one of her best, most upbeat ballads. And perhaps what makes it a standout is its less depressing subject matter, in the same vein as “Gypsy.” Give me that optimistic ballad that I love, queen.
Cover photo courtesy of www.rollingstone.com