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30 September 2021

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s Cole Porter album is a love letter to their friendship

On their second album of mid-century jazz standards, their theatrics are superb – if you like that sort of thing.

By Emily Bootle

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s cover of “The Lady is a Tramp” is the perfect cure for a particular type of ennui (when you are in need of the musical equivalent of a Rubicon). It’s also the perfect video to force everyone to watch at the end of a dinner party, when you need to signal that it’s time to go home. (I recommend incorporating the Ariana Grande cover of “The Wizard and I” from the musical Wicked, before going back to your normal, musical theatre-free life.) “The Lady is a Tramp” was Gaga and Bennett’s first collaboration, and while it might have seemed like a novelty hit at the time, it became the beginning of a decade-long musical partnership. Their second album, Love For Sale, is a compilation of Cole Porter’s big-band classics.

Gaga’s collaboration with Bennett might appear to be another of her characteristic shapeshifts, but in fact it represents a return to roots: she was classically trained and sang jazz standards as a teenager. Her voice blends perfectly with Bennett’s, the Big Daddy of American schmaltz: he croons effortlessly; she is hammy and playful. The record opens with Anything Goes number “It’s De-Lovely” – they take it at a quick tempo, and Gaga opens with a throaty “I feel a sudden urge to sing”, before it becomes a duet and they harmonise with ease.

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Porter’s songs are witty, provocative and romantic, and Bennett – for whom this music is his natural habitat – and Gaga deliver them with precision and virtuosity. But these are mid-century jazz standards, and there’s only so far you can go. The snare drum shuffles, the bass plods, the trumpets shriek and the saxophones go scooby-doo-bah. Gaga’s theatrics are superb – she wails “Who will buy” on the title track with plaintive melodrama, and on “Let’s Do It” lyrics twist from her lips like Bugsy’s Tallulah – if you like that sort of thing. The nostalgic sighs of the strings transport us to a time gone by; it’s pristinely executed by Bennett’s band and orchestra, but it’s a very specific type of fantasy.

The album’s real strength is its backstory, and the relationship between Gaga and Bennett. Since Bennett asked her to cover “The Lady is a Tramp” with him on his 2011 record Duets II, they have formed a bond that is audible in their work. On tour with their first album as a duo, Cheek To Cheek, Bennett sketched Miles Davis’s trumpet (in recent years he has, among his many other accolades, taken up art) and Gaga had the drawing tattooed on her arm. Bennett giggles on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” when Gaga sings “I love you like a tattoo”. “Is that about me?” she says teasingly, when, on “I Get a Kick Out of You”, Bennett sings he is enamoured by “your fabulous face”.

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Bennett’s family announced in 2016 that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Music has been important to him in maintaining a healthy mind but he is now 95, and has confirmed that this album will be his last. Gaga takes “Do I Love You” as the only solo track on the album, and it’s hard not to be moved by the lyrics: “Would I miss you, would I?/If you ever should go away?/If the sun should desert the day/What would life be?” Love For Sale is a tribute to cross-generational and cross-genre musical collaboration – but it’s mainly a record that embodies friendship. As Gaga sings on “Do I Love You”: “Doesn’t one and one make two?”

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