Not so much 'Born' as cloned
It seems as if Lady Gaga's Born This Way (Interscope **) has been gestating forever.
Gaga's global fan base of "little monsters" has known the title of Stefani Germanotta's second album - her debut, The Fame, came out in 2008, and its appendage, The Fame Monster EP, the following year - for a long time.
She announced it at the MTV Video Music Awards last summer, and when she came through Philadelphia on her marathon "Monster's Ball" tour in September, she was already singing snippets of the inclusiveness-anthem title cut, plus an intimate piano ballad called "Yoü and I."
That song turns up on Born This Way as a collaboration with former Def Leppard producer and Shania Twain husband Robert John "Mutt" Lange, with a solo from Queen guitarist Brian May, whose band's song "Radio Gaga" was the inspiration for the Lady's name.
And, promotional genius that she is, Gaga has structured 2011 thus far as one long countdown to the birth date of "the album of the decade." (Literally - the fashion-forward provocateur tweeted the album's release date at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve.)
Now that the wait is finally over, though, it's tempting to ask: What took so long? Because now that it's arrived, Born This Way sounds as if it was made in too much of a hurry.
The album is in no way skimpy (although Amazon offered it for 99 cents online Monday, for one day only, which generated so much traffic that its servers stalled). On the contrary, it's a maximalist effort, with the bonus edition including 17 songs that take up just short of 80 minutes - as much music as can be crammed onto one CD - plus a second disc of remixes.
It's just that on song after song, beginning with the merely mediocre "Marry the Night" and ending with the middle-of-the-road bombast of "The Edge of Glory," which features an extended saxophone solo by E Street Band horn-blower Clarence Clemons, Gaga seems to be in a massive hurry to hit listeners over the head with pulverizing choruses and thump-thump-thumping Euro-disco beats.
Large parts of the album were apparently composed in the back of a tour bus, and the relentlessly onrushing rhythms sound as if they were primarily influenced by a driver who kept the accelerator all the way to floor.
Born This Way is certainly full of catchy songs - and some that are truly strange, with "Government Hooker," sung in the voice of a prostitute hired to please John F. Kennedy, and a song whose title is a bad word in German tops on the list.
But most of the earworms remind you of other, more original earworms. Sometimes, the source material comes from Madonna, Gaga's - and everyone's - model for image reinvention. That's the case with "Born This Way," which takes after the Material Girl's "Express Yourself" as it fashions a good-hearted and fiercely proud Gaga group hug to lesbians, gay, and transgender people, and anyone else who has ever been made to feel like an outcast.
Sometimes, Born This Way finds Gaga cannibalizing herself, rather than taking the time to create something new. All that constant reinvention must get tiring: Once you've worn a dress made of meat, what do you do to get people's attention next time? Flirting with religious taboos is one tried-and-true tactic, but when Gaga goes for provocation on "Judas," she does so by borrowing from her own "Bad Romance." And a cruise down the cringe-worthy "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" merely recalls the superior, much lighter-on-its-feet "Poker Face."
Gaga is justifiably proud of her status as a real musician who never lip-syncs on stage and is quite capable of writing her own songs, thank you. Good for her. On Born This Way, the 25-year-old superstar-of-her-own-making does show off her chops quite impressively on many occasions, as in the mini-aria that begins "Government Hooker."
And she can be quite an engaging presence, too: Witness her nicely turned appearance on Saturday Night Live over the weekend, where she turned up in a number of skits with Justin Timberlake, including one in which she was the meat in an Andy Samberg and Timberlake "3-Way" sandwich.
Born This Way has its full share of entertaining moments. Along with the resounding choruses and commanding vocals, though, it often scores points for being unintentionally amusing, as in "Heavy Metal Lover," which begins with the unfortunate come-on line "I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south."
In the run-up to Born This Way, Gaga promised that the album would deliver "sledgehammer dance beats." It makes good on that vow, matching that disco determinism with a taste for 1970s and 1980s rock melodrama - "Hair" and "Highway Unicorn" wouldn't sound out of place on a Meat Loaf album.
Nobody expects, or wants, Lady Gaga to get subtle all of a sudden. And by going for the kill, time and time again, she clearly aims to superserve her fans with more Gaga goodies than they could ever have imagined arriving all at once. But by overstuffing Born This Way with fist-pumping sing-alongs that rarely distinguish themselves in comparison to the hits that got her here, the outré pop star comes off as not daring, but dull.