In the earliest years of this decade, it could be hard to remember that Stefani Germanotta was a person at all. I say Lady Gaga, you think: Alexander McQueen hoof shoes. Raw meat dress. The SXSW performance with a “vomit artist.” Born This Way. A collection of concepts, a string of controversies, and some seriously infectious hits (“Bad Romance,” always). But you don’t necessarily think of a human being.
Perhaps resigning herself to the fact that it’s hard to see her doing anything shocking without causing harm to herself or others, Gaga has decided to turn the tables yet again and make a jazz standards album with the 88-year-old Tony Bennett. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds: Gaga has been playing piano since the age of four, and underneath the layers of Auto-Tune, she has a set of pipes worthy of the smokiest lounge singer. These two New York Italians seem to understand each other very well, having first joined forces on “The Lady Is a Tramp” for Bennett’s 2011 album, Duets II. There are really no gimmicks here: no synth beats, no club-ready hits, and no incendiary religious imagery, just two artists taking their craft back to its bones and clearly having a lot of fun in the process. It’s pretty damn refreshing, a clean slate and a palate cleanser after the Gaga media fatigue of the past few years.
It’s doubtful that the majority of Lady Gaga’s millennial fans will recognize even half of the tunes on the 11-track Cheek to Cheek, and that’s OK. These well-worn standards, written by the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin, are getting the chance to be new again despite clearly bearing the stamp of a different era. In an interview with NPR, Gaga said that some of her fans seemed to already know at least some of the tunes, and “it’s becoming cooler for them to talk about who wrote what.” While there doesn’t seem to be any empirical way to back this up, it’s a nice image — an army of costumed Little Monsters swooning over Cole Porter as sung by their idol.
In the context of Cheek to Cheek, the contrasts between Gaga and Bennett are interesting: He stays straightforward in his delivery, while she sometimes adopts an old-timey affectation that’s never overpowering or obnoxious. Their voices complement each other and mesh together almost seamlessly, and on tracks like the big-sounding “I Won’t Dance”, it’s hard not to smile at the perfectly executed harmony. Covers of slower tunes like “Nature Boy” don’t really offer much that’s different or new, but they’re beautiful and engaging nonetheless.
Tony Bennett has always seemed like an amicable guy, someone it would be easy to strike up a conversation with over a tumbler of scotch in a bar. What’s perhaps the most surprising about Cheek to Cheek is its ability to bring the aloof and complicated Lady Gaga down to earth. She goes solo on “Lush Life” and predictably kills it, every word dripping with passion, regret, and vulnerability. You remember why she sells out stadiums and inspires legions of dedicated fans, but at the same time, you’ve never been more aware that the meat dress hides a beating heart.
Essential Tracks: “I Won’t Dance”, “Lush Life”