This most mainstream of musical moves follows a difficult couple of years for pop’s chief provocateur. In 2013, Gaga split with her longtime manager, underwent hip surgery, and released her third album, ARTPOP, a chart-topper that wasn’t quite the world-melter everyone expected.
Gaga thought about calling it quits, but as it turns out, Mother Monster just needed a grandpa figure to put things in perspective.
She chose the right one. At 88, Tony Bennett is a national treasure — a charming old swing cat whose warm personality and effortless cool have won him the love and respect of just about everyone on the planet. Following their collaboration on his 2011 Duets II record, Bennett was keen to work with the former Stefani Germanotta on a collection of jazz chestnuts he knew his fellow New York Italian could handle.
On Cheek to Cheek, Gaga justifies his faith — sometimes a bit too forcibly. Whereas Bennett is a master of restraint — a guy whose best performances play like melodic chat sessions — Gaga thrives on spectacle. She sings many of these songs with the involuntary hamminess that fuels her flawed genius.
Gaga definitely needed Bennett more than he needed her, but both will benefit from this pairing. By all accounts, they had a blast working together, so coming in, it’s best to leave all cynicism with the coat-check girl. As for whether Gaga’s legions of “Little Monsters” will do as Bennett hopes and discover the brilliance of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, it almost doesn’t matter. Their heroine will emerge from Cheek to Cheek energized and validated, and the real success of the album may be measured by what she does next.
Read on to get our track-by-track take of this seemingly unlikely duo’s supremely likeable collaboration.
“Anything Goes”: This could be Gaga’s theme song, though here, she switches up her usual point of view. “Day’s night today, and black’s white today,” she sings, more an amused observer of our zany world than someone looking to up the crazy quotient. Bennett’s characteristically chill throughout, and Gaga resists gunning it until the very end, when she loses the coquettish old-school accent and pushing things into the 21st century.
“Cheek to Cheek”: This one gets going in the second verse, when the bass and drums hit and Bennett takes the reins. When the two join voices, Gaga verges on overpowering, but Mother Monster keeps her scenery chomping in check, and the scatting finale suggests they really were having a ball.
“Nature Boy”: Gaga has praised songwriter Eden Ahbez for being “part of a sub-culture of nomadic hippies,” and while this sophisticated number ain’t exactly a psychedelic freakout, flutist Paul Horn — who died not long after the recording — gives this a fanciful, almost mystical air. It’s about traveling the world and discovering that all you need is love, and with her smoldering vibrato, Gaga turns in one of her most understated performances.
“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”: The electric organ and sauntering bassline arrive with the swank cool of a chilled cocktail, and from the second she comes through the door, Gaga’s ready to party. “Gee I like to see you looking swell, Tony,” she sings, just before giving it a mighty vocal surge. By the end, she’s upending hors d’oeuvres trays and singing right over poor Tony.
“I Won’t Dance”: “When you dance,” Tony tells Lady, “you’re so charming and gentle.” Unless he missed that SXSW green-puke stunt, he knows damn well Gaga is the antithesis of gentle, and that’s what gives this swinging standard its wonderful winking feel. Gaga gets into the retro spirit by pronouncing “absolutely” and “especially” like a dame from an old movie. Written in the ‘30s, this one’s all about how the brain, body, and heart don’t always see eye to eye, and save for the reference to doing the Continental, it rings pretty current.
“Firefly”: Here, Tony loosens his collar and proves he can hang with histrionic Gaga. “Why can’t I latch on to you?” he sings, capturing the bewilderment and sexual frustration of a guy who brings a girl to a party, figuring he’ll get some action, and then watches her flirt with every dude in the room. What, he thought Gaga would sit with her hands folded all night?
“Lush Life”: Dozens of artists have tackled Billy Strayhorn’s wastoid anthem, and given her recent spate of bad luck, Gaga glooms it up convincingly on this solo turn. It sounds like she’s serenading an empty glass at 2 a.m., having just closed down the bar she’s doomed to frequent for the rest of her days. Funny that “lush” means both “luxuriant” and “excessive drinker.” Either way, it’s not a word you want defining your life.
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“Sophisticated Lady”: After Gaga’s show-stopping solo number, Bennett steps up and takes his turn. With a simple piano backing, he gives a kind of pep talk to a jaded lady who’s loved and lost and forgotten how classy she is. It’s like Tony’s telling Lady to buck up and put on her big-girl pants — or meat dress, or plastic bikini, or whatever.
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance”: Some of these old songs have a cleverness lacking in today’s lyrics, and this one’s about doing everything but facing the music, at least in an idiomatic sense. Gaga and Bennett figure there’s bad mojo ahead — not to mention a sizeable dinner and drinks bill — so they block out reality and lose themselves in this percussive number. It’s the only tune where the drums and horns — especially the sax solo — nudge the headliners out of the spotlight.
“But Beautiful”: This 1947 tune is about how when it comes love, you’ve got to take the highs with the lows. It’s basically “Bad Romance” minus the lines about studded leather and psychopathic behavior. Gaga’s vocals fold into the strings like buttermilk into cake mix, and Miss Bluffin’ With My Muffin serves up a surprisingly sweet treat.
“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”: “Do-wa, do-wa, do-wa, Tony, Gaga!” these two jumpin’ jivers sing in unison, affecting enough retro pep to get the dudes in Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy dreaming of another swing revival. It won’t happen, fortunately, but Tony ‘n’ Lady’s Musical Wedding ends with plenty of dips and twirls.