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Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper - A Star is Born Soundtrack Music Album Reviews

At its peaks, the album delivers on the promise of its star-wattage with some of the most affecting and emotionally overwhelming pop songs of the year.

A Star Is Born has no right to be as good as it is. Directed by Bradley Cooper, the third remake of David O. Selznick's 1937 film has been in development for most of the decade and at one point counted Clint Eastwood as its director with, impossibly, Beyoncé in the lead role that Lady Gaga now occupies. The immersive and romantic narrative of singer-songwriter Ally (Gaga) and her relationship with veteran rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) as the latter watches the former rocket to pop stardom is imbued with the sort of rockism that typically triggers derision in the current cultural climate. But alongside powerful turns from Cooper and Sam Elliott, Gaga shines brightest with an empathetic performance that presents a summation-in-reverse of the last several years of her career.

Since the aggressive blare of 2013's ARTPOP, Gaga has moved further away with every career turn from the brand of pop that put her on the map circa her 2008 debut The Fame; she took up crooning alongside Tony Bennett for 2014's Cheek to Cheek and hopped in the studio with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Father John Misty for 2016's Joanne. When the curtain rises on A Star Is Born, she's covering Edith Piaf with fake eyebrows taped on her face; two hours later, she's a full-blown pop star, complete with backup dancers and split-second costume changes. With a wholly organic and real-feeling performance, Gaga again engages in the blur between person and persona that she's toyed with for much of her iconographic career thus far.

Even though Gaga’s performance caps a decade-long run of shapeshifting pop stardom, there’s nothing in the apparently modern-day A Star Is Born that really reflects the actual 2010s pop landscape. For starters, it's a bit difficult to imagine Maine's dyed-in-the-wool country-rock playing to such a huge audience at Coachella, as it does in the film's opening scene; elsewhere, some modern relevance is achieved through a Halsey cameo and a pivotal scene centered around the type of all-star Grammys tribute that typically turns social media into a unanimous airing of grievances. This disconnect from our reality is totally fine: A Star Is Born reaches for and ultimately achieves a timeless vibe that doesn’t require current pop-cultural relevance.

The film’s official soundtrack is similarly old-fashioned in its approach, even as its credits include a host of modern songwriters from the pop, country, and rock spheres. Along with Gaga and Cooper, there’s contributions from Jason Isbell, Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, Mark Ronson, Miike Snow frontman Andrew Wyatt, behind-the-scenes pop wizards Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, the list goes on. The songs fall into a few distinct silos—blaring blues-rockers, tender acoustic ballads, anthemic torch songs, and robotic electro-pop—and save for a digital flourish or two on the pop songs that make up much of the film’s back half, there’s very little here that would’ve sounded out of place on blockbuster film soundtracks of decades past.

At its peaks, the album delivers on the promise of its star-wattage with some of the most affecting and emotionally overwhelming pop songs of the year. If you’ve spent half a day on the internet over the past several weeks, you’ve likely encountered the explosive Gaga-Cooper duet “Shallow,” and deservedly so; it’s a stormy ballad so instantly iconic that its place in Oscar montages for decades to come is practically guaranteed. At the risk of heresy, though, it might not even count as the strongest song on the album—at the least, it reaches a three-way tie with the swaying, unabashedly sentimental “Always Remember Us This Way” and the film’s stunning, heart-wrenching closer, “I’ll Never Love Again.”

Those three standouts heavily feature Gaga—the latter two as solo performances—which speaks to the somewhat uneven nature of the Cooper-led cuts. The simple, sincere, Isbell-penned “Maybe It’s Time” possesses a quiet radiance, but otherwise Cooper’s songs as Maine take on a somewhat anonymous blues-rock shape alongside the soundtrack’s more dynamic moments. Despite the strength of Gaga’s performances captured on this soundtrack—all live takes recorded during filming, an approach that she insisted on—she isn’t totally off the hook when it comes to the lowlights either; the more explicitly pop songs that make up Ally’s ascent as a solo artist range from forgettable (”Heal Me”) to ridiculous (”Why Did You Do That?”).

The mere act of engaging with A Star Is Born's songs in a home-listening setting presents a very modern issue: dialogue or no dialogue? Streaming services currently offer both dialogue-free and dialogue-heavy versions of the soundtrack, the latter functioning as a somewhat spoiler-y but surprisingly immersive experience of the film itself. Choosing which version to stream is a peculiar conundrum to face (imagine, for instance, buying two separate copies of The Bodyguard soundtrack), but even though “I’ll Never Love Again” is plenty effective on its own, the dialogue-included version of the song dramatically cuts out in its final seconds the same way the film does: jumping back in time from Gaga’s time-stopping performance to a pivotal and heartbreaking scene that only enhances the song's emotional quotient.

The switch-up is a nice trick as a listening experience, but it also unintentionally highlights the incidental flaw of A Star Is Born’s soundtrack: It just can’t pack the emotional punch of watching the songs performed within the film. The live recording of “Always Remember Us This Way” doesn’t capture Gaga’s impassioned physical delivery behind the piano, her face emblazoned on a JumboTron behind her as Cooper goes moony-eyed at her blown-up visage. And as powerful as “Shallow” is, nothing matches the look of genuine surprise on Gaga’s face as Ally, when she hits her higher register for the first time and effectively launches the song into the emotional cosmos and beyond. These moments speak to her obvious strengths as a performer, as well as how impressively the music works in congress with the film’s imagery; you can recreate them in your head while listening, or go for your best Gaga while belting these songs out in the shower, but it’s just not as effective as the real thing.

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