I’ve been trying to write this review for about a week now and here’s the thing – I still can’t work out if MDNA is a better album than it appears to be or a worse one. Let me try to explain..
In her early years Madonna was a master at that great pop art of making songs about not very much feel like they were about quite a lot – Borderline, Open Your Heart and Crazy For You all being perfect examples of songs with a gravitas far exceeding the lyrical content. From Ray Of Light through Music and American Life she started writing far more lyrically complex songs and emerged as a near-perfect crystallisation of ‘smart pop’. Great tunes and a mature depth often absent in the Top 40. Since then she has, with varying degrees of success, been engaged in an olympian sprint in the opposite direction – the coveted crown of Club Queen in her mind’s eye and a lyrical focus largely of the ‘get up and dance’ variety. Like some patronising parent I have so far indulged it as a mostly enjoyable but hopefully passing phase.
And now here we are with MDNA. If in her early days she was good at conjuring more substance out of her material than it naturally contained MDNA feels like an odd exercise in the reverse. Once you scratch beneath the surface these songs contain easily some of her most explicitly personal lyrics – Lord knows Guy Ritchie’s ears must be permanently burning these days. Some are undeniably brilliant (‘all of Falling Free for starters’), some clunkers (‘Frankly, if my name was Benjamin’) and some so awful they become brilliant (‘Baby Jesus on the stairs’).
And yet somehow it all feels so.. impersonal..
It’s often noted that post-Evita her vocals have become increasingly clipped and over-pronounced – perhaps this new voice can’t commit fully enough to the sound of MDNA? Perhaps it just not ‘her’. There is certainly some kind of disconnect going on here. Strangely, I find myself thinking about Kylie a lot listening to this album. I can’t help suspecting that several of the tracks on MDNA would fare better with her breathy, electro-purr wrapped around them. So many of her songs are equally (or even more) weak/forgettable but often pull it off in that odd slutty-but-classy way that Kylie has been curiously pulling off things that she shouldn’t for the last couple of decades. That said, her vocals are hardly centerpiece stuff either – frequently nasal and equally over-pronounced. I find myself comparing it to other recent dance-pop but the less said about chart rivals Katy and Rihanna’s vocals the better (I’m not entirely convinced that Britney actually *is* human any more) so I don’t know that vocal delivery is the problem I’m having with MDNA. Or at least not the only one.
Musically it certainly feels like a case of style over substance which may well be a greater part of it. There are shades of Music and American Life, the expected how-very-2011 dubstep breakdowns and a few (far less expected) moments of celtic influence. The production is good and almost every song starts promisingly but crucially most seem to go nowhere – there are few strong hooks and I find it hard to remember many of the tunes once I stop listening to them. The bubblegum songs (Girl Gone Wild, Give Me All Your Luvin’, B-Day Song) are pretty awful and beaten out of the water by most of the nonsense banging around the charts over the last year or two. Unfortunately the ‘proper’ songs generally leave me wanting more too. There is plenty of sassy spite – Gang Bang, I don’t Give A and Some Girls are all full of superbly nasty, tough lyrics and big punchy fuck-you beats but it’s a violence that lacks plausibility. Even when telling us to ‘die bitch’ it’s a cartoonish lip curl rather than a bloodied fist.
There’s nothing ‘bad’ about MDNA – on the whole it feels like a very credible stab at credible dance-pop and it’s consistent where most pop albums (including a few of her own) are horrifically patchy – but at the same time it leaves me mostly unmoved either emotionally or sonically.
There is a cynicism to the creation of this album – the musical trend boxes that are ticked, the Nicki Minaj / M.I.A guest features, the constant references musically and lyrically to previous Madonna moments – that is both obvious and exhausting. Amusingly, one of the few songs on the album that I find genuinely engaging is about money. I know I have a personal tendency to root for the underdog (it’s no accident that I have an uncomfortable relationship with ego boosting rapper-bling-speak) but I can’t be the only one who feels a sense of relief by the time Falling Free and I Fucked Up come on. After having it pounded into me over and over again that ‘There’s only one queen and that’s Madonna’ (thanks Nicki) I’m glad to be reminded that she is a fallible human being too. Even then I Fucked Up is delivered with an ironic (favourite Madonna word) caveat at the end.
I’m not particularly interested in Madonna’s personal life beyond how it influences or appears in her work but with an artist as evocative and with a level of fame as unparalleled as hers it becomes impossible to talk about a new Madonna record with talking about Madonna. How does she look? What are the videos like? The album art? This might seem irrelevant but it’s not – it’s absolutely integral to her career and I would be doing her a great disservice to pretend otherwise.
So, it occurs to me while consuming the visuals for this era – and in particular the video for Girl Gone Wild – that the notion that she has been primarily concerned over the years with sex is only partially correct. Madonna has never had the raw sexuality of Debbie Harry or Susanna Hoffs but what she did so, so well was present a frequent dissection of sexual politics – an almost academic appraisal of cultural approaches to sex and sexuality. If it was sexy it was reaching us as much through the brain as through the groin. It’s no surprise to me that Madonna would want to continue to be sexual, even aggressively so, at this point in her career but what I see now, visually, is the smoke and mirrors of pop-sex with all the brain removed. It’s amazing how unsexy Madonna is when there is no brain work to do. In the words of Jarvis Cocker ‘you’re so perfect you don’t interest me at all’.
The Give Me All Your Luvin’ video is undoubtedly her best video in a long, long time and it’s witty and smart. But like her superbowl performance it’s a series of quips and re-affirming gestures designed to again remind us why Madonna is the Queen and little more.
Oh, ok then..
The elephant in the room of this review is of course her age. Lets not beat about the bush – no other pop artist has ever been in the position she is. She has a very real stab at being the first POP star to transition past her 40s without becoming a niche, greatest hits or Vegas parody artist. It’s what I’ve always wanted for her and I’ve long nurtured the seed of hope that she would be the one to lick the incalculable challenge of being an older woman in an industry obsessed with youth and beauty. Will she manage? Quite possibly yes, but it would seem not in the way I had hoped. It’s all gone a bit Death Becomes Her. I’ll be brief here because it’s a subject that I could write an entire blog post about on it’s own but I’ll take those much-mocked ropey, veiny old arms, crows feet and sags over a badly molded Barbie face (or photoshop smudge) and vacant expression any day. People are loving it of course but it’s breaking my heart that she’s going to win the battle by losing the war. When will we get another shot at this opportunity? 30, 40 years from now if any of our current bright young things are still around? On a human level I totally understand – I can only begin to imagine the pressure on her. I empathise entirely but it still makes me sad. It’s a bitter irony (that word again) that the most moving, human aspect of this campaign so far has been her fight against nature itself.
Girl Gone Wild artwork
Pontificating aside, here’s my ratings:
Girl Gone Wild: 5/10
Rather horrible and generic. The inexcusable Act Of Contrition retread aside I actually (controversially) prefer this to the lead single but, admittedly, that’s a bit like saying I prefer Body Of Evidence to The Next Big Thing.
Gang Bang – 7/10
Soooo much potential. Starts off brilliantly and ends well but there’s a bit too much ‘ho hum’ in the middle for my liking. I feel like this *should* be my favourite track on the album and every time I listen to it I’m disappointed it’s not.
I’m Addicted – 6/10
Passes by pleasantly enough but absolutely will not stick with me afterwards.
Turn Up The Radio – 7/10
Enjoyably vapid and contains one of the few memorable choruses on the album. If she really, really had to release a ‘fun’ single then this should have been it.
Give Me All Your Luvin’ – 3/10
The spelling of Luvin’ tells you everything you need to know about this song. Horrible. N.O Thanks. Don’t Wanna.
Some Girls – 7/10
I feel much the same about this as Gang Bang although to my eternal surprise I think this is *slightly* better.
Superstar – 6/10
Cute and probably a grower.
I don’t Give A – 6/10 (but 10/10 for the last, totally epic 50 seconds)
For some reason not entirely clear to me the ah-ah-ah-ah bits always remind me of the music in Tim Burton’s Willy Wonky.
I’m A Sinner – 7/10
Starts off tantalisingly Frozen then goes all Girl Gone Wild by the chorus. One of several songs on MDNA that sound a lot like Beautiful Stranger – a Madonna song I’ve, unhappily, never been that fond of.
Love Spent – 10/10
My favourite song on the album by a country mile. This will be the one that makes it out of my MDNA playlist and gets hardcore listening. It’s neither the most lyrically sophisticated or the the ‘toughest’ song on the album but it all comes together beautifully. Even/especially when it gets a bit Riverdance in the middle.
Masterpiece – 7/10
A pretty enough melody but a shadow of her great ballads. And for my money Madonna has often been at her best on ballads an down / mid-tempo songs.
Falling Free – 8/10
I don’t like this quite as much as most people seem to but it’s still very, very good. I also suspect it might sneak up to a 10 over time. The last minute of it is absolutely beautiful.
Beautiful Killer – 6/10
Another song I suspect may be a grower.
I fucked Up – 9/10
The other of two songs on the album that grabbed me straight away and one of the few that I think sit comfortably next to my favourite songs from across her career. It’s not perfect and like almost everything on MDNA it does noodle on a bit but I love, love, love it anyway.
B-Day Song – 4/10
Marginally better than Give Me All Your Luvin’ which has a similar retro feel but definitely a skip-track for me all the same.
Best Friend – 5/10
Another pleasant but weak song that won’t really stick with me.
The final word
MDNA is either a slightly weak, rather vain exercise in self aggrandisement mascarding as a much better, cooler, beast of an album or a pretty decent stab at current adult pop that unfortunately tends to come off a little cheaper in places than desired. I’m going to plump for the latter because ultimately I don’t want to see the woman fail.
Not a classic but not a turkey either, and if it seems lke this is a tough review it’s because Nicki is right – she is the fucking Queen. And I want more from her. I want her to make me *think* and *feel* not just dance and give her all my
$$ luvin’. But to do that her heart needs to be in it 100%, not just her wallet and and her production crew.
*or not 😉
Overall Rating: 6.5/10
Highlights: Love Spent, Falling Free, I Fucked Up
Lowlights: Give Me All Your Luvin’, Girl Gone Wild, B-Day Song
All words by Susan Sloan.