Despite being a lifelong fan Madonna’s last two albums have been, if not terrible, at least a case of lowering expectations for me so I will freely admit that my hopes for her most recent release ‘Rebel Heart’ were not high. Perhaps that’s why on my first listen I came away with with a verdict of ‘ok, but nothing special’. However unlike it’s predecessor MDNA (you can read my review of it at the time here) Rebel Heart is a grower not a show-er. Where MDNA started as a force-yourself-to-listen-to-it-because-it’s-Madonna 6.5/10 for me (and, in all honesty, three years later has ended with me only being able to listen to a few tracks from it) Rebel Heart took just a few spins to become one of those albums that I can’t stop playing.
The biggest difference for me between this and MDNA is that it feels well crafted, well considered and cohesive. It also feels like an album made by an intelligent, functioning adult – by which I mean when there are saucy bits, bratty bits or sweary bits that make me guffaw out loud it feels finally like I am laughing with not at her again.
Along with the ‘outrageous’ it’s worth pointing out that the ‘heart’ in Rebel Heart is very much present too. In fact for me this is her first album since American Life to offer genuinely heartfelt emotion and vulnerability. MDNA and Hard candy both had flashes of it but always with a caveat or a wink. Here there are many moments I find moving without feeling shoe-horned in or like they occupy the place of the obligatory label-required ballad.
There are issues with the album – there are a few duff tracks (most of which are frustratingly lumped together at the start of the album) and most obviously, and sadly, her voice itself. She has in recent years lost much of the warmth, depth and tone to her vocal range that made it so beautiful and she now generally sounds rather shrill, thin and pitchy on most songs. There are flashes of what she is still capable of throughout the record but in most cases, on a technical level, it could be any of the big pop girls – and at times, arguably it would sound better if it were.
That said, what Rebel Heart does give us once again that has been missing for so long is a big, high voltage kick of the Madonna spirit – saucy, smart, irreverent, iconic, and frequently ironic. And for that reason alone it really could be no-one else. Where only a few years ago she seemed desperate and aimless I feel like she has thankfully found her feet again – her sense of humour and soul with it.
Rebel Heart is a very good record in it’s own right but also, almost more thrillingly, leaves me once more properly excited to see what she produces in the future. Something which I now confess (bless myself and genuflect) I thought was gone for good.
Track by track
1. Living For Love – 6/10
Why do I hardly ever like anyone’s first single? I find artists often have a habit of releasing underwhelmingly ‘safe’ tracks as lead singles only for there to be a wealth of more exciting material on the album. No-one seems to be immune to this from Bowie to Britney and Living for Love is another one of those for me. It’s not a terrible song and the backing vocals give it some enjoyable flourish but it’s at best a mid-range album track for me and no doubt I will come to love it much more as that than I do at the moment.
That said, I will probably never be able to listen to it without visualising *that* moment at the Brits :/
2. Devil Pray – 6/10
I feel like I should like this song more than I do as it’s reminiscent of some of my favourite songs on Music but it just doesn’t quite hit the spot somehow.
3. Ghosttown – 8/10
One of the few songs on the album where we get glorious chunks of thevoice we grew up loving. Melodic, melancholic and catchy in the right places.This is also set to be the second single, a great choice I think.
4. Unapologetic Bitch – 4/10
This is the only track on the album
that plumbs similar depths to MDNA for me and has the same icky ‘dancing with
the kidz’ vibe that put me off most of that album. Plus it’s a bit UB40.
5. Illuminati – 5/10
A fun and lyrically amusing track but
ultimately musically unsatisfying – should provide for some excellent tour
6. Bitch I’m Madonna – 10/10
To say this song is divisive among
fans would be an understatement but it’s one of the album highlights for me and
the only of the teaser tracks I played constantly before the album release. To
me this song is everything MDNA attempted but done properly – a brash, ballsy, banger
with a cheeky sense of humour. It, unlike similar tracks on MDNA, harnesses both
her current vocal range and her featured artist as highlights rather than hindrances.
Plus there is some excellent yelling. And Nicki does this ‘ooft’ noise that is
one of my favourite sounds of the year.
7. Hold Tight – 7/10
A pretty, melodic mid-tempo with an
anthemic chorus that for me achieves a similar feeling to Living For Love more successfully.
8. Joan Of Arc – 7/10
One of those rare moments like
Drowned World or Easy Ride where we are allowed to peek behind the curtain and
see that maybe she is actually ‘only human’ after all. A beautiful song that,
although it will likely never happen, I think could make a great late-campaign single.
9. Iconic – 9/10
One of the most addictive tracks on
the album for me. A massive, empowering stomper. This is also one of the songs
that signals the (almost impossible to describe) shift from dance pop that
feels like it’s struggling to be ‘cool’ to a sound which feels far more effortlessly
current as well as somewhat tougher and more confrontational.
10. HeartBreak City – 8/10
It’s great to hear genuine emotion in
her delivery again and this song has it in bags – bitter, sad, regretful and another
excellent mid-tempo, anthemic almost-ballad.
11. Body Shop – 10/10
The absolute stand out track on the
album for me. So totally unexpected and really quite unlike anything she’s done
before – though the closest reference points for me might be some moments of Erotica
or Music. Her voice sounds wonderful, wistful and intimate and I dream of ever getting
an entire album of songs of this level of ingenuity and sensuality from her
12. Holy Water – 8/10
One of those songs that seems utterly
awful until you realise halfway through that’s it’s completely won you over with
its stupidity and sleaze. Hilarious in all the right ways.
13. Inside Out – 8/10
One of my first favourite songs on
the album – catchy and melodic again with the shade of melancholy that runs
through most of Rebel Heart.
14. Wash All Over Me – 9/10
A beautiful and slightly funereal
ballad that somehow ends up feeling far more uplifting than it should. I can’t
help thinking it would make a wonderful mashup with Rain.
15. Best Night – 7/10
There are a clutch of songs on this album
that call to mind the Erotica album and on this track it seems to be a knowing
hat-tip on her part, particularly during the spoken section. A very well
crafted and more-ish album track.
16. Veni Vidi Vici – 9/10
I just can’t get enough of this song.
Being as lyrically self-referential as this can go either way but she pulls it
off and for some reason I actually find the chorus strangely moving. Absolutely
cannot wait to see this one live.
17. S.E.X. – 8/10
Madonna has spoken quite openly over the
last year or two about her horror at the media treatment of women in her age bracket
and most specifically the notion that they shouldn’t be sexual or sexualised. While this is a
complex issue that I don’t want to tangent into here I will say this – If you’re
going to be our ambassador for screwing after 50 Madge then this is how to do
it. Continuing the trend on this album of managing finally again to be sexual
in a way that reads as ‘adult’ rather than simply desperate or puerile, I feel
like she has at last struck the right balance of ‘fuck you’ and ‘fuck me’.
Let me caveat that by saying that there is a tendency to forget that she has
always been somewhat puerile (even on the aforementioned Erotica she served us
that unforgettable Colonel Sanders line) however in later years it has often
felt to me that she was trying to be shocking whilst in fact wimping out of
ever really going beyond playful or camp. All innuendo and no follow through if
you will. What I love about this song is that it actually is quite dirty. And it
sounds dirty. Yes, there is humour in it – but it’s definitely a sleaze jam
too. So now I’m thinking SEX book v2.0? That really would be fabulously shocking..
18. Messiah – 8/10
A swooning, slightly gothic unrequited-love
song with some of the better lyrics on the album.
19. Rebel Heart – 8/10
A lovely, catchy salve at the end of the album and another surprisingly
honest piece of self-reflection that leaves me feeling all kinds of warm and
fuzzy for our lady and her Rebel Heart.
.Overall score: 8/10 (and nudging towards an 8.5 as the days go by)
All words by Susan Sloan.