Life is a highway, and Lady Gaga wants to ride it on a unicorn with Jesus strapped to her back all night long. Born This Way is a literal road record -- the 25-year-old singer recorded it during her travels promoting 2008 debut The Fame, and follow-up EP The Fame Monster -- but it also charts Gaga's speedy trip from a chick with a disco shtick to our most absurd pop star for our absurd times. Gaga couldn't have changed course faster if she'd hopped in Marty McFly's DeLorean, which is essentially what she does on this gloriously weird album. She borrows the grandiose flavor of 1980s radio rock, adds Catholicism, gay pride, and mythical creatures, then stirs it all with a comically gigantic high heel.
Like the other dyed-blond Italian-American superstar who blazed this trail, Lady Gaga drags her conflicting obsessions with religion and sex onto the dance floor. Gaga and cowriter Fernando Garibay wedge church organ into the four-on-the-floor banger "Marry the Night" and sedate the beat to a hypnotically sleazy grind for "Bloody Mary." But despite the title track's utopian message, Born This Way's songs are not created equal: Holy dud "Judas" is a frantic puzzle whose pieces never quite fit, and the tracks that compare godliness to self-empowerment are likewise labored. The echoes of Bruce Springsteen on messy "Hair" don't meld with its cutesy chorus -- even E Street sax man Clarence Clemons sounds like he's not sure why he's there -- and the painfully trite, though well-intentioned lyrics to Madonna rip-off "Born This Way" aren't helped by a glitter grenade of synthesizers.
Excess is Gaga's riskiest musical gamble, but it's also her greatest weapon, and Born This Way relentlessly bludgeons listeners' pleasure centers. "Electric Chapel" pairs divine diva thump with a Van Halen guitar solo and "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" rubs clubby keyboards against the hopeful angst of "Thunder Road," capturing the effect of spinning a radio dial in the '80s, when frizzy pop and over-the-top rock mingled outrageously on the airwaves. Even when she sticks to a single sonic path -- grimy doom disco on "Government Hooker," "Scheiße," and "Heavy Metal Lover" -- Gaga coos nutty come-ons that range from the ludicrous ("Put your hands on me, John F. Kennedy") to the hilariously ludicrous ("I don't speak German, but I can if you like") to the awesomely ludicrous ("I want your whiskey mouth all over my blond south").
The cult of Gaga has already eclipsed her music, so it's only fitting that she turn to the decade of bloat for inspiration, nicking bits from Pat Benatar, Whitney Houston, and Journey. Producer Mutt Lange feeds "Yoü and I" through the Def Leppard filter and brings in Queen guitarist Brian May to crank the love song into a stompy lighter-waver (echoing Elton John and Spinal Tap). It's the perfect lead-in to closer "The Edge of Glory," which sounds exactly like its title, uniting all of Gaga's contradictory impulses in an ecstatic, anthemic, five-minute lunge to the finish line -- there's strings and synths, Eurodisco beats and saxophone solos, love and death.
Calibrating the crazy in her music is no easy task, but Gaga twists the right knobs on Born This Way, applying her '80s pastiche to throbby grooves and sentimental tunes that'll pierce the hearts of both Little Monsters and heartland moms. At times, the journey to "Glory" nearly pushes Gaga over the edge, but while most 21st-century pop stars pulverize their imperfections into an Auto-Tuned slurry, she boldly wears her audacity like a meat dress. Lady Gaga certainly wasn't born this way, but she's making a convincing case that she's evolving into our most surreally brilliant pop star.