A new Madonna album is such a loaded event that it’s hard to come into it with a fresh perspective. After all this is the woman who has singlehandedly pushed pop music forward for the past 30 years. And while her early contemporaries have vanished into pop history or – more recently – passed away tragically, the Queen keeps working hard trying to stay relevant and hip in a world that is increasingly youth obsessed. (How old are the boys in One Direction?? Seriously!)
It is easy be forgotten in the world of pop music (does anyone remember Roxette or even Blu Cantrell)? This may explain why Madonna feels the need to channel her old self so often on her new album. She has been gone since 2008 and many pop lovers have moved on to the new pop princesses: Rihanna, Katy Perry and the one most see as Madonna’s successor to the throne: Lady Gaga. On MDNA, the new album released earlier this week, Madge wants to remind us who she is while also demonstrating that she is able to keep up and even surpass the wannabes.
Listening to the album one can catch glimpses of the ghost of Madge’s past, from the themes of religion/spirituality (‘Girl Gone Wild’), sexuality (‘I’m Addicted’) and excessive living. Then there are the songs that recall past successes, like ‘I’m a Sinner’ which sounds like a b-side to her 1999 hit ‘Beautiful Stranger.’ Much like her Superbowl performance – a pop montage that looked back on her incredible career – these moments on MDNA are nice, but they do little to elevate the album, and in some instances, like ‘I’m a Sinner’, it feels – dare I say? – reductive. Even when it does work, like the club banger ‘Girl Gone Wild,’ these “recall” numbers offer a fun, if forgettable, track.
If we’re being honest I have always preferred the Madonna albums that are fun and catchy, but also introspective. Which might explain why my favorite albums are Like a Prayer and Ray of Light. Both these albums effortlessly blend great pop sensibilities with confessional songwriting, which lifts them from standard pop trifle to pop classics. This partly explains why there are moments on MDNA that I greatly enjoy. Many critics have already stated that this is Madonna’s ‘divorce album’, and that’s hard to argue against. With lyrics like, “I tried to be your wife, I diminished myself,” and “Your picture’s off my wall, but I’m still waiting for your call,” she seems to be working through her failed marriage throughout most of the 17 tracks from the album. These moments of confession and introspection are what makes this album an engaging listen. Madge’s delivery and personal connections to the songs help to ground the album and make it more accessible than the well received Confessions on a Dancefloor. Although that album was well liked by many, I felt that she sounded too disconnected to what she was singing, which left me cold (even as I danced away). On MDNA she seems to want to exorcise her feelings, using both her words and and dance as a way to expel all the negativity.
The stand out track on the album is definitely ‘Falling Free.’ A curious and dream-like song, it bears a resemblance to the beautiful ‘Mer Girl.’
‘Falling Free’ is a haunting song that closes the album and speaks to her relationship with her ex-husband. When she sings, “I let loose the need to know, we’re both free, free to go,” it’s a fitting end to an album haunted by a relationship that has soured. On the other hand, ‘Gang Bang,’ which is the album’s second track, is a completely different track in its sound and meaning. Drawing from house music and dubstep and a kind of Kill Bill sensibility, it’s a revenge song that draws you in with its heart pounding beat. ‘Bang, bang, shot you dead, shot my lover in the head. Bang, bang, shot you dead, and I have no regrets.’ Although perhaps a little dark, the song is fun, with its tongue in cheek sensibility. Elsewhere, Nicki Minaj makes a welcome return on ‘I Don’t Give a F,’ which sees Madonna revisiting her rapping days, but this time more successfully. Although Madonna is by no means a rapper, this track works well for her limited skills. She is definitely upstaged here by Minaj, but overall the track itself is great.
Of course the album has its weaknesses and tracks like the insipid ‘Gimme All Your Luvin,’ which does nothing to elevate the material (see my critique of the music video here). I am actually surprised that this was the lead single for the album because it is clearly the worst part of this album. Which is a shame considering the talent involved. As I mentioned in my review of the video, MIA and Minaj don’t mix well. Surveying the entire album, it’s clear that MIA is not a good fit for this material, as she appears on the two worst tracks (the other is ‘B-Day Song.’) I’m not a huge fan of MIA but I’ve always respected her work. Unfortunately these two collaborations do nothing to convince me to buy her records. Considering these are two female artists known for pushing political and sexual boundaries, it’s disappointing that their combined output is so empty and generic.
Other tracks that slow down the album are the aforementioned throwback ‘I’m a Sinner,’ and ‘Superstar,’ which tries to be a new ‘Cherish’ any of the charm and fun.
On the whole, MDNA is not perfect, but there are moments that work and are rewarding. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t seem focused; it’s all over the place. The production quality is, however, top notch. Being Madonna allows you to pick and choose the top producers, and this album is no exception. This includes the hot new DJ Martin Solveig, as well as Benny and Alle Benassi, and Madge’s old friend William Orbit (of Ray of Light fame).
WillMDNA restore Madonna back to her glory days and reposition her as the Queen? I’m not sure. There’s no question that she’s an influential and important figure in pop history. While this album might not be a return to form for her Madgesty, I am sure she has more tricks up her sleeve. As Minaj spits, ‘There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna. BITCH!’
MDNA is now available in stores and on iTunes.