Until recently, I feared that Madonna was beginning to phone it in after so many years of musical supremacy. For every sign that she was still driving things (she seemed fully present during Sticky & Sweet even if Hard Candy felt like a pretty good album nonetheless made to fill out a contract), there would be other signs that she might be more interested in backing away from music.
Now, after her longest-ever time between studio albums, Madonna is back and she's convincingly engaged on MDNA, which I hear as arguably (with myself, mostly) her best effort since Ray of Light.
Some of Madonna's critics like to call her "desperate," the ultimate insult. But I think her desperation is what makes this album rock, what makes it push into new territory while still serving as a massive reinforcement of her 30-year-old brand and what, more simply, helps to make all of her new songs work as well as they do.
She has a desperation, but it's a helpful desperation—to be taken seriously, to have and to cause fun, to make people squirm, to provoke thought. In other words, Madonna still has not lost the artistic neediness that defines all creators and that almost invariably evaporates after so many creative cycles. She's still hungry, still wants it. In fact, she wants it back.
MDNA has neither the introductory boldness of Madonna nor does it forge an entirely new sonic path as did Ray of Light, but it radiates knowledge of self and wisdom alongside an equal dose of unabashed hedonism. It's a huge gamble at her age, but one that pays off for both Madonna and any open-minded, open-hearted listener still in awe of the reparative power of dance. Overall rating: 8.7/10
TRACK BY TRACK...
"Girl Gone Wild" opens the album with a sarcastic act of contrition that sounds more defiant than despondent and with an ensuing song perfect for a divorcée in her dirty thirties (or 53 in Madonna years). It also kicks off a dizzying series of self-referential lyrics and themes (especially those religious ones) by managing to sound almost identical to "Sorry" and "Celebration" in patches. The lyric "girls, they just wanna have some fun" has led some listeners to note a hat tip to Cyndi Lauper, but interestingly, Lauper changed the original dirty meaning of Robert Hazard's song to make her version a neo-feminist anthem while Madonna returns it to the brothel. Why this intoxicatingly reckless song is so controversial among fans (and some critics, one of whom calls it "no-fun professionalism") is beyond me—it's not classically Madonna in its feel and is probably the song most eager to please Top 40 programmers (a losing cause—they've had little L-U-V for Madonna for a decade), but it's as good a club banger as she's ever produced, on par with "Deeper and Deeper" even if it suffers for having come 20 years later. Madonna, or the character "Madonna", throbs with recently unrepressed des-i-i-i-i-ire and at least for me, that feeling slams right into the listener like brass balls on a businessman's desk eternally passing energy back and forth. Forgive me or don't, I love this song unrepentingly. 10/10
"Gang Bang" starts with a Ray of Light-esque flourish before immediately plunging into a relentless bassline one can almost imagine Madonna heard and improvised an entire song to. This is a plus in that it sounds spontaneous and exciting. It's a minus in that it's not going to win any awards for its sheer poetry. No matter. Giddy in its function as a techno-rant, the song uncoils with an intentionally humorous, dark intensity reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino flick—hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially if the bitch has access to a firearm. What should be a self-indulgent mess winds up being a far more convincing and fresher take on a previous song like "Runaway Lover." The singer's contempt is visceral, made all the spookier by the gravely delivery and that long, eerie denouement filled with gleeful proclamations of hellbound violence. "Get up again, over and over?" Hell, no! Instead, "I wanna see him die/Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over." (If the ending is too much for ya, try Tracy Young's remix.) Speaking of Cyndi Lauper, Madonna sounds a fuck of a lot like her on this. This wild track is the best revenge song ever, reminding me of 1000 Fires by Traci Lords and sounding like a song Divine should have sung.10/10
After two songs devoted to abandon, rebellion, reactive retribution, "I'm Addicted" is an undisguised love song awash in a synth sensory overload. The beginning could be Yaz. So far, Madonna's never been more electronic, not even on Ray of Light, her best work and yet a far more self-consciously restrained piece. If MDNA is a play on MDMA, this is her ode to giving in to unnatural pleasure. Flashes of "I Feel Love" (already more exactly echoed on "Future Lovers"). As tired as I've grown of hearing Madonna describe each new album post-American Life as being a return to the dance floor, when she states, "I need to dance," it reminds me of, "You can dance," except this time it's a need not an option. There's also a definite "Hung Up" (aka ABBA's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" vein going through this. Chants of "MDNA" (which she sings in a way I can't recall her ever singing before) make this one a good candidate for tour opener.9/10
Unexpectedly, "Give Me All Your Luvin'" doesn't feel out of place on the album, Super Bowl advert that it is. It actually makes so much more sense in the context of the album than it did as a first (and therefore implicitly best) single. I still like Madonna's ode to the '60s surfer sound, a far more Go-Go's or Toni Basil vibe than I'd ever thought she'd embrace and a continuation of the positivity begun by "Turn Up the Radio". I like Nicki Minaj on this, but it's distressing that she appears on two tracks as does M.I.A.; one-offs would've been better. The salute to Madonna's canon is loud and clear here with "every record sounds the same," familiar from the shadier "Hollywood." 7/10
"Some Girls" perfects the braggadocio that left such a sour taste in my mouth with "Candy Shop", brassily laundry-listing the types of girls Madonna is not ("Fake tits and a nasty mood"?...hmmm) and asserting that, "I'm better than you ever dreamed of." The music is electrifying, sounds unlike any past Madonna songs and more than makes up for the pile of lyrics clichés that distracts, though never to the point of ruination, throughout. As for past works referenced, you don't get much more blatant than "like a virgin, sweet and clean" or "some girls are second best" (as in, don't go for them, baby). 8/10
The first song that for me feels a bit boring and in my opinion the main album's only filler is "Superstar", which features smoking novitiate Lola on backing vocals (making it sort of like an adolescent "Little Star"), a nonetheless pleasing and convincing romp that, like other songs before it (for example, the horrendous "Super Pop" and the long-forgotten "White Heat") uses real-life men as shorthand to communicate: Marlon Brando, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan, Al Capone, Julius Caesar, Bruce Lee, John Travolta, James Dean. The prettiness of this song calls to mind an inferior version of "Cherish" or "True Blue" or "Angel," the latter of which is explicitly called out with "you're my angel." 6.5/10
"I Don't Give A" feels like this album's "Nobody Knows Me", an initially off-putting song with a quickly addictive rap feel and nakedly personal lyrics about all the hard parts of being not only a single working mom but Madonna, all made better with a fiercely brandished shell. "I'm gonna be okay/I don't care what the people say," Madonna sings, and we don't doubt that at the very least, she is going to do what she'd going to do regardless of judgment. "I tried to be your wife/diminished myself/and I swallowed my light" = who says she's lost her ability to write good lyrics? Nicki Minaj's rap fits seamlessly into a song that Madonna is already practically rapping herself. I'd swear "I Don't Give A" is Madonna's second, and far more successful, stab at "American Life". The orchestral finale makes her life sound like The motherfucking Omen! 8/10
"I'm a Sinner" soars, lyrically both light and engaging: "Like the sun, like the light, like a flame/Like a storm, I burn through everything/Like a bomb in the night, like a train/Thundering through the hills, let it rain." Lovely, as is Madonna's girlish vocal and the retro feel. Like "Girl Gone Wild", this tune plays on notions of sin and redemption. But unlike that brazen song, "I'm a Sinner" is about sweetly shrugging and accepting one's transgressive urges rather than shoving them down any throat that comes near. Her listing of Mary, Jesus and quite a few saints reminds me of a religious stab at "Superstar". More than a guilty pleasure, "I'm a Sinner" is an argument that guilt is pleasurable. 8/10
"Love Spent" is one of the album's most special moments, an immediate addition to the very best Madonna's ever written or sung. It opens with a banjo and strings, like a lovely affair between "Don't Tell Me" and "Papa Don't Preach". Leave it to half-billionaire Maddy (I never warmed up to "Madge") to write a love song about money, but even if you'll never have Mo's mo'-money-mo-problems problems, many couples can relate to fights rooted in finances. "You had all of me, you wanted more/Would you have married me if I were poor?" she comes right out and asks in the beginning, sounding as vulnerable as she's ever sounded. But for my money, the best lyric on the album goes: "Hold me like your money/Tell me that you want me/Spend your love on me." This kind of need—and the failure of the love behind it—clearly led to the acting out and anger from previous songs. Is it not true that this album is presented in reverse chronological order? (Another "Hung Up" echo pops up here just before the bridge, and "You played with my heart/Til death do we part" could link this to her last great divorce song, "Till Death Do Us Part" from Like a Prayer. If only she hadn't tossed in that groaner about not being named Benjamin, this would be an 11/10. 10/10
When W.E. was released, fans got a taste of "Masterpiece". While the film wasn't one, the song comes close, a lilting, mid-tempo ballad featuring beautiful vocals and an earnest sense of love and loss, or if not loss, at least the fear of it—"because, after all, nothing's indestructible." (A better title for this album would've been Indestructible.) 9/10
As comfortably warm as "Masterpiece" is, it suffers being sandwiched between "Love Spent" and "Falling Free", the latter of which sounds like Simon & Garfunkel and showcases Madonna's too-often underrated (sometimes by Madonna herself) voice. Picture her alone on a stage at a mic singing this—it's gorgeous and intelligently, perceptively written from the perspective of someone older, wiser and making a new go of it: "When I move a certain way/I feel an ache I'd kept at bay/A hairline break that's taking hold/A metal that I thought was gold." It resonates with the world-weariness of "Drowned World/Substitute for Love", when Madonna was first "feeling so old." I don't remember becoming emotional over a Madonna song until this one. Flawless and mature, a powerful end to the album proper, an album characterized by raw emotion. 10/10
The bonus tracks begin with "Beautiful Killer" (another good alternate title for the album or even her lazily nameless tour), but it's a head-scratcher as to why Madonna didn't want this on the regular album. It's not only an earworm (with a faint echo of "Die Another Day" in her delivery) but stylistically unique from the many club-friendly tracks that pave its way. A rollicking pop-rock song devoted to Alain Delon that manages to use Madonna's whisper to great effect in a way we're not used to experiencing. (In other words, it's not a heartless Dita this time but a teasing partner.) 10/10
"I Fucked Up" sounded like it might be painful to sit through based on its title alone, but it's a pretty, self-effacing admission of wrongdoing by a woman who notoriously has "absolutely no regrets." Here, she's not only at fault but spectacularly so—"nobody does it [fucks up] better than myself." I can't remember enjoying Madonna's cast-offs from an album this much, so I can only surmise that she doesn't place these bonus cuts in the same class as "Hey, You," "Super Pop" and the like, but instead intentionally put amazing songs on the special edition to ensure fans would not take a pass and stick with the basic. 9/10
I may be in the minority, but I think "B-Day Song" is unfairly maligned. I think it's a far more charming take on the sound explored out of nowhere on "Give Me All Your Luvin'", love that Madonna has a song about her birthday being a positive thing knowing that critics would likely be trashing her for her age in reviews and find the chorus irresistible. There's also a definite Pre-Madonna song to this welcome bit of girlish whimsy. 8/10
"Best Friend" is yet another relationship post-mortem, but still manages to bring new observations to the table (before getting up and dancing on it), namely themes about male/female power-sharing. Here, as in some other spots, I find myself enjoying the song overall and accepting the lyrics yet still feeling like she could have worked on her wording a bit more to tighten things up and avoid awkward moments like: "You made me laugh, you had a clever wit/I miss the good times, I don't miss all of it." Still, the "filler" on this record is so much better than the filler on Hard Candy. I will also say again that the album might be superior to Confessions On a Dance Floor because it's so much more diverse (like Music) while still holding together as a complete thought. 7/10
The "Give Me All Your Luvin'" Party Rock Remix is annoying and unnecessary; does it really count? Okay: 5/10