Album Review – Madonna, “MDNA” (Caution advised)

It’s been four long years since Madonna’s last full studio album, Hard Candy, and bar a few bonus tracks on hits compilation Celebration, there’s been a bit of a drought for Madonna fans, leaving a Lady Gaga-sized gap in the market.

The “comeback” album, MDNA, opens with its second single, Girl Gone Wild, and the tone of what is to come is set up rather accurately. This is not Madonna as we’ve known her before. A treble-heavy, squelchy techno score sets the backdrop for almost every track. This album makes her previously most experimental phase (Music/American Life) sound positively bubblegum. This is no invitation to get Into The Groove. She wants you to get off your tits. It’s more hardcore dance than she’s ever been before, having collaborated with some of the world’s biggest dance producers.

The lyrics inform you that this Madonna not on her best behaviour, and she’s revelling in it. She hasn’t had his much fun being bad since Erotica 20 years ago. There are some moments of frivolity, but she clearly has a few demons to exorcise.

Girl Gone Wild is clearly one of the Benny Benassi tracks, sounding exactly like every other Benny Benassi track (including his remix of her own Celebration, which, regrettably, was used for the video).

The scene set by the opener is furthered by the next track, the driving, angry, Gang Bang. Relatively tuneless and pretty much going nowhere, it still somehow manages to pack a hefty punch. Whilst it may not be what I’ve come to expect (nor want) from Madonna, this is not someone simply being lazy. The melodic understatement is clearly intentional, as it’s still infuriatingly catchy. Although the shout of “die, bitch!” make me yearn for Thief of Hearts.

She takes the clubby setting one step further with I’m Addicted, in which she chants either MDNA or MDMA (which, I’m reliably informed, is the active chemical of ecstasy). The confusion is clearly no accident, and it’s difficult not to get hooked into the track.

Turn Up The Radio is a highlight, and one of the few moments where her familiar pop melodies can be found- and even this sounds more like a remix of a Madonna song than a Madonna song. This one’s clearly co-produced by Martin Solveig, reminding me of his massively catchy hits Hello and Ready To Go.

By the time disappointing first single Give Me All Your Luvin’ arrives, it’s a breath of fresh air; vibrant, melodic and memorable. If only it made as big an impression in isolation as a single. MIA and Nicki Minaj pop up for some urban credibility, but little else.

Some Girls initially returns the album to driving, tuneless pulsating, then suddenly pulls a killer chorus out of its sleeve, and Superstar keeps the singalong melodies coming. Things are looking up.

I Don’t Give A gives Nicki Minaj a bit more to do, and sees Madonna in typically reflective mood, herself spitting a rap a la American Life, before the track stops and suddenly builds to an epic, choral climax that sounds like the soundtrack to a Hammer Horror.

I’m A Sinner is clearly a William Orbit production, bearing flashes of Beautiful Stranger and Amazing. It does pale to both by comparison, but is a welcome return to a familiar form.

It sounds like she was playing Tetris whilst recording Love Spent, which features familiar, playful, electronic beeps and bleeps. She clearly isn’t happy with Mr. Richie. You feel she is trying desperately to be objective, but considers him an avaricious bastard. Those who pre-ordered the album in iTunes will have had their (heavily required) patience rewarded with a bonus track, an acoustic version of this song. Frankly, it’s better.

Masterpiece, the closing ballad (and highlight) of her best-forgotten movie W./E., has its lovely moments, its infectious mix of hand-clappy, acoustic beats and hints of the sweeping orchestral arrangements as brought by Craig Armstrong on the hugely acclaimed Ray of Light album. This is brought out in force in Falling Free, whose positively sparse production, consisting almost entirely of strings, still somehow manages to bear the hallmarks of MDNA. The minimalism showcases her vocals, and they sound gorgeous, delivered with the emotion, authority and sensitivity that I’ve always loved about her voice.

Eschewing her traditional ballad comedown to close the album, she reminds us she means business with Beautiful Killer, putting the album back into full gear and giving us a nicely meaty vocal melody that wouldn’t have sounded out of place between Impressive Instant and Runaway Lover on Music. The closing gunshot ends both the song and the album appropriately. Like it or not, mission accomplished.

There are a few bonus tracks on the Deluxe Edition that deserve a mention.

First up is I Fucked Up. You probably did not assume from the title that it is, in fact, an oddly sweet up-tempo ballad. Not since Nobody’s Perfect has she been so honestly contrite, and it’s quite heart-breaking, especially towards the end as the tempo and lyrics take a flight of fancy before crashing back to reality. It’s actually an album highlight, well deserving of a spot on the main album.

MIA’s second appearance, B-Day Song, is simply a piece of crap. The new Happy Birthday To You this is not. Sounding like the lyrics were made up on the spot, it’s childish and irritating, and I feel embarrassed just listening to it. I can’t believe it was not only recorded, but released.

Best Friend is instantly forgettable, but pleasant enough while it’s on, as she finally finds the objectivity that eluded her in Love Spent. Much like I Fucked Up, it’s refreshingly respectful to the father of her eldest son.

Welcome back, M. I’m already looking forward hopefully to the next one, but this grower will certainly fill the gap.

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