Album Review

Madonna – ‘MDNA’ (Album Review)


Madonna‘s ascent to the throne as the Queen of Pop (which began roughly 20 years ago give or take, depending on which articles you read), happened as a result of her ability to reinvent herself as an artist, challenging taboos regarding gender and sexuality via the appropriation of underground cultural phenomenons and entertaining the world over with her extraordinary talent as a live performer. She also knocked out a decent song or two.

The reality, though, is that her latest studio album MDNA–the twelfth of her career overall–is not about reinvention: It’s about reclamation.

After just under three years spent behind the director’s camera of W.E.–her take on the romance between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII–the Queen of Pop found herself going stir crazy, having spent months researching, writing and splicing pieces of her movie together in the editing room. (Or more likely, bossing around some poor schlub to carry out her demands.)

Coupled with a highly publicized divorce after 8 years from director Guy Ritchie in late 2008–a (somewhat) surprisingly still-raw subject that largely weaves itself throughout her latest record–Madonna’s current mantra du jour is best captured in her new album’s most defining lyric: “I need to dance.”

Yes, Madonna’s in a rapturous state of mind in 2012, and in more ways than one: A bulk of her latest album, an incredible, varied collection of pounding club cuts, bloody revenge odes and swinging, psychedelic ’60’s-tinged anthems, seems to be tripping out on acid–or, more accurately, ecstasy. After all, the euphoria-inducing club drug (MDMA, formally speaking) is largely responsible for the cheeky, initial-inspired album title, MDNA.

But there’s a second way to interpret the album’s title, as perhaps hinted at on album’s test tube-like kaleidoscopic cover, which might be even more befitting: Madonna DNA. Sure, she refuses to step back in time (how many times has she said “I don’t like to repeat myself”?), and she might have just released her latest greatest hits compilation Celebration back in 2009, but Madonna’s latest studio album, oddly enough, often feels more like a career retrospective–played in hyper-speed, anyway.

Lyrically, there’s countless nods for fans to find from her back catalog: “When I hear your voice/Something happens to me and I have no choice” she sings in the bridge of “I’m Addicted,” channeling “Like A Prayer.” From “Express Yourself” in “Some Girls” (“I’m not like all the rest, put your loving to the test”) to the “Je suis désolée” and “Forgive me!” from Confessions‘ “Sorry” in “I Fucked Up” and “Girl Gone Wild” to “Into The Groove” in “Superstar” (“John Travolta, get into your groove!”), it should become clear to those hungrily searching for any instances of any copycat work that the only artist Madonna consistently keeps swiping from on this record is…Madonna.

And when it’s not a lyric, it’s a vibe: “Gang Bang,” one of the album’s brightest highlights (and, ironically, its darkest moment), finds the wronged heroine of Erotica‘s “Thief of Hearts” up for another round of merciless revenge, while “I Don’t Give A” provides a modern day update to the social angst and #MiddleAgeSingleMomCelebrityProblems expounded upon on “American Life.” “I’m A Sinner” swings with the same trippy ’60’s psychedelic touch of 1999’s Austin Powers theme, “Beautiful Stranger.” On “Superstar,” Madonna delights in a dozen or more of her favorite male pop culture figures in history, a la the timeless name-dropping bridge of “Vogue.”

Plus, there’s the religious aspect–a signature characteristic in the Madonna catalog. This time however, it’s back to Sunday School: Gone is Ester, Kabbalah-centric songstress present in the earthier cuts of Ray of Light and the Hebrew-soaked mysticism of tracks like Confessions‘ “Isaac.” No, Madonna Ciccone has us returning “Like A Prayer” territory on MDNA, down on our knees and grasping at our rosaries for forgiveness. “Hail Mary, full of Grace” she declares on”I’m A Sinner,” later rattling through a half-dozen biblical figures. “I forgot to say my prayers/Baby Jesus on the stairs!” she inexplicably howls on the boisterous “I Don’t Give A.” In the first few seconds of “Girl Gone Wild, she recites the Act of Contrition (a prayer that first made its way into Madonna’s back catalog on 1989’s Like A Prayer.)

Forget the bible: Everything one ever needed to know about Catholicism can be found in MDNA.

Like her classic 1989 release, MDNA is a post-divorce record. Unlike Like A Prayer, which was released only a few months after her divorce from Sean Penn, MDNA comes almost four years after the fact. Since then, new love has already sprung.

As a result, there’s contrasting moods at play: MDNA is an incredible, explosively defiant record–full of both euphoric club cuts and swoon-filled swinging ’60’s pop anthems, yes–but also unexpectedly raw, introspective balladry, all of which showcasing far more vulnerability than one might have concluded from the album’s two lead singles.

Launching with “Give Me All Your Luvin” back in January, the chant-heavy cheerleading anthem which already leaked in mostly finished form 3 months prior (and should, for all intents and purposes, be considered nothing more than a promo single for the Super Bowl) was the campaign’s first misstep. While the song itself is a breezy moment of self-congratulatory revelry (“L-U-V, Madonna!”), it’s also one of the album’s least interesting moments overall, and the verses tacked on by both of its heavyweight pop star features–M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj–are cheap, phoned-in and completely unrelated to the song. Sure, it was all in cheeky fun–pom-poms and all–but for a first impression, there was little to cheer about.

“Girl Gone Wild,” the second single from the campaign, did her no favors in the public eye either: That Madonna was singing about getting drunk off of Tanqueray in the club while bumping up against a beat that’s been served up and reheated twice over already (it’s very similar to Benassi’s remix of Madonna’s own “Celebration” from back in 2010) didn’t particularly champion the argument that Madonna was providing anything that wasn’t already on the radio–especially when, only weeks prior, she was sipping tea and referring to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as “reductive.” (To Madonna’s credit, it still is.)

Hearing the album in full, it’s hard to believe that those were the singles selected from the record–especially considering MDNA is one of her better albums in years.

“I’m Addicted” for instance–the namesake of the record–surges forth with the euphoria of “Ray of Light” and the dark, hypnotic trance of Confessions‘ “Get Together.” As incredible as the song’s pulsing House beat is however (co-crafted by the Benassi Bros. and The Demolition Crew), the unexpectedly poetic lyrics are even more magical: “All of the letters push to the front of my mouth/And saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout/And I can’t get it out,” Madonna cries. (What is this, “Bedtime Story”?!) Between the skittering synthesizers, stuttering vocals, pounding beats and endless chanting of “M-D-N-A” in the song’s final explosive minute, nothing comes closer to aural Ecstasy.

“Gang Bang” is another highlight–not only the record, but of her entire career. Over a dark, brooding electronic pulse, Madonna–now Dita out of order from Erotica–stalks her ex-lover in a bloody, blissfully grim tale. “I need you to die for me, baby!” she purrs above a grinding dubstep breakdown, echoing Britney‘s 2011 dub-pop masterpiece “Hold It Against Me.” As the song comes to its thrilling conclusion, the Queen comes unhinged: “Drive, bitch! And while you’re at it, die bitch!” she shrieks with delight. Add in a relentless round of guns firing, cartridges loading and bullet shells dropping the ground and you’ve got a Quentin Tarantino film in sonic form. (And a pretty solid case for a restraining order in the case of Guy Ritchie.)

The bitter taste left in Madonna’s mouth following the divorce makes its way into several of the album tracks, but is no better represented than in “I Don’t Give A.” Tripping on top of a ballsy electronic hip-hop beat, Madonna lays down the business: “You were so mad at me/Who’s got custody?,” she speak-sings. The rap in “American Life” was hard to swallow, even for the most devout Madonna fans. (“The room is full of hot-tays“? I try to forget.) Here, however, she makes it work: Nothing feels quite as personal as this track as she rattles through several dozen very Madonna-specific problems (“Ride my horse, break some bones”), eventually leading to Nicki’s most ferocious features in ages.”There’s only one Queen, and that’s Madonna…bitch!” she growls. Damn straight.

Between the seismic-sized synthesizers, theatrical delusions of grandeur and bossy, mile-a-minute fuck-off tracks, you get the sense that Madonna is quite literally blasting away the pain and cranking up the bass: “There’s some things you don’t need to know…just turn up the radio!” she demands on euphoric Martin Solveig-produced “Turn Up The Radio” before quickly drowning in a sea of arena-sized synthesizers.

That’s where William Orbit comes into play–her trusty collaborator from Ray of Light and Music–returns to draw out some vulnerability yet again. The album’s Orbit-produced closing moments, including “Falling Free” and the Golden Globe-winning “Masterpiece” from W.E., are stunning exercises in quiet introspection, colored by gorgeous orchestral production and vocals that haven’t sounded so pure in well over a decade.

Speaking of, the vocals throughout MDNA have been run thoroughly through the ringer–from being stretched too thin on processed bangers like “Girl Gone Wild,” to the Auto-Tune overload of “Some Girls,” to a kind of regal, fluttery over-enunciation on “Falling Free”. It’s all very strange, but in most places, it works.

“Love Spent,” however, is arguably Orbit’s greatest triumph on the record: Like seventeen electronica songs and a plucky banjo all shoved into one, the thrilling electro-ballad (well, not really a ballad) finds Madonna woefully recounting a relationship in financial and emotional turmoil: “If we opened up a joint account/Would it put an end to all your doubt?” Madonna earnestly ponders. And then out of nowhere, the track explodes: The structure shifts (a brief moment of “Hung Up” synthesizers flaring up in the background!), and the song literally catapults into space.”I want you to hold me like you hold your money/Hold me in your arms until there’s nothing left,” she croons with an icy Auto-Tune flair, a four-to-the-floor storming underneath while an 8-bit electronica beat twinkling above.

It’s an instantly classic Madonna ballad (well, still not really a ballad), down to the song’s devastating opening line: “You had all of me…you wanted more.”

“I Fucked Up,” which has been unfairly subjected to bonus track status on the deluxe edition of MDNA, finds Madonna slowly recounting all the ways it could have worked with her former beau above a drippy, slow-staggering (shockingly produced by Solveig, not Orbit.) “I fucked up, I made a mistake/Nobody does it better than myself,” she lightly croons. For a woman whose lyrics are so often spelled out in the form of a defiant middle finger (“I’m not your bitch!”), it’s a rather rare admission of blame.

Not everything is doused in anguish and acid: Despite many of the darker, angrier and more introspective moments, Madonna mostly sounds like she’s never been happier in parts of the record. There’s a kind of warmth we haven’t heard from Madonna in a while: Call it newfound freedom or call it Brahim Zaibat, but Madonna’s definitely feeling the love again.

In fact, she’s downright slap-happy half the time: Along with the insipid jubilee of “Gimme All Your Luvin,” there’s “Superstar,” which sees the icon lovingly cooing her way (“Ooh, la la, you’re my superstar!”) though a non-stop swoon fest in reverence of her new beau. The song’s a real family affair, incorporating eldest daughter and rising style icon Lourdes for a pretty harmony in the background.

“Beautiful Killer”–another track that really should have made the standard edition–continues the love affair across a striding ’60’s midtempo pulse reminiscent of a Girls Aloud production (specifically “Singapore”). “You are a beautiful killer,” she whispers excitedly, a la American Life‘s “Love Profusion” (“I got you under my skin”). There might be talk of gun-slinging and deadly intention on this gorgeous ode to French film star Alain Delon, but it sounds like she’s smiling in the booth the entire time.

So where does MDNA lie in the greater scheme of all things Madonna? Well, it’s somewhere in between 1989’s Like A Prayer, 1998’s spiritual masterpiece Ray Of Light (though not as revolutionary) and her dark and throbby 2005 triumph Confessions On A Dance Floor (though not as cohesive). MDNA is miles more daring than her less inspired 2008 album Hard Candy, which too often felt crippled by pangs of relevancy-seeking atop recycled Timbaland beats 4 years past their prime. It’s Madonna’s most joyful record since True Blue, or even the one that started it all back in 1983: Madonna.

MDNA won’t help to reassert Madonna’s position on the throne as the Queen because of forward-thinking production or a particularly relentless promotional campaign. Instead, it serves as a reminder of what Madonna has always represented (and what most other modern pop stars fail to truly grasp): Fun.

It’s sonic euphoria, chock full of dramatics, attitude and surging dance-pop productions that only grow better with each replay. It’s infectious and propulsive. One might even call it addictive…like MDMA. (And that’s okay!)

Those turned off by the thought of Madonna being “too old” likely won’t be swayed otherwise when they listen to this record. While the album’s slower moments offer “of age” introspection, her aggressive (and often sexually charged) attitude on most the album cuts is even less muted than it has been in over a decade: Between the devious howls of “Drive, bitch!” in “Gang Bang,” the slagging off of girls with “fake tits and a nasty mood” on “Some Girls” and the not-so-subtle euphemism on “Beautiful Killer” (“Can’t really talk with a gun in my mouth!”), Madonna’s clearly just begun having her fun being naughty. (This is, after all, the woman who once purred “Next time you want pussy, just look in the mirror baby” on Erotica‘s “Waiting” almost 20 years ago.)

The older Madonna becomes, the more the public will push back at for behaving just like the pop star she was in the ’80’s and ’90’s (which is not to say that she hasn’t always been criticized every step of her career regardless). Could she change? Throw on a gown and sing some slower tunes about life lived and love lost? Yes. But why would she?

Face it, she’s Madonna: Just as she refused to be told what she can and can’t do as a woman in music 20 years ago, she’s not going to be told what she can or can’t do as an older woman in music today: The critics might scowl and dismiss her as a grandma for wearing a leotard and singing about sex, but she’ll only push back harder by doing a cartwheel on bleachers in high heels while performing at the Super Bowl live in front of a billion viewers with a smile on her face–something most every girl in this industry couldn’t do now at half her age. As she declares on “I Don’t Give A”: “I’m gonna be okay/I don’t care what the people say.”

She’s going to go down swinging (and likely while straddling the head of a dude from LMFAO.)

“I think my nature is to fight back, to fight those demons that want to bring me down. I have this motor inside of me that says, No, I will not go down, I feel it pulling at me, and sometimes it’s stronger than at other times…and that’s why I work so hard, because obviously I must have a lot of demons I’m fighting,” she told Becky Johnston 23 years ago in the May 1989 feature for Interview Magazine.

That’s why we she became the Queen then. That’s why she remains the Queen now.

A less rambly track-by-track version of this review appears on MTV Buzzworthy.

MDNA was released on March 26. (iTunes)