Once upon a time, in the year 1983, a young woman appeared on the pop scene named Madonna. Her music wasn’t radically original, but she had a distinctive style and personality, as well as a confident and challenging sexuality. The public was captivated by her almost instantly, and over the next three decades, she ascended the ranks of Billboard royalty until she became the undisputed Queen of Pop.
For the last few years, she’s been content to mostly sit upon her throne as well-wishers deliver her tributes of roses (absolutely NO hydrangeas) and indulge her cinematic fantasies. It’s been seven years since she sounded like she was legitimately having fun with her music (Confessions On a Dance Floor) and four years since she fulfilled her contract with Warner Bros, in the most mercenary way possible (Hard Candy). Four years is an eternity in modern pop music, and to say that the hype surrounding her latest project, MDNA, was huge is a mild understatement. The album largely answers that hype with a resounding, “Meh.”
Madonna got her start in the underground clubs of New York City, and MDNA is ostensibly a return to those origins (the title itself is also a play on MDMA, otherwise known as the once-popular party drug ecstasy). However, it also has the unenviable task of making Madonna seem relevant in a music world that has evolved at a rapid pace without her. Singers like Katy Perry and (especially) Lady GaGa have become the new superstars and the new gay icons, and on MDNA, Madonna decided that the best way to beat them is to join them. Unfortunately, she ends up sounding more like an imitator and less like the incendiary entertainer we used to know and love. She’s content to follow trends instead of set them; it only takes her seven minutes into the album to reach her first obligatory dubstep break.
That’s not to say the album is bad, necessarily. It has a number of great moments, but they’re almost always offset by songs that are equally weak if not outright embarrassing. Most of the time, Madonna at least sounds like she cares about the music she’s making, but just as often, she sounds like she’s trying way, way too hard to win back the fans who may have forgotten about her.
The good moments start almost right away with the album’s second single, “Girl Gone Wild.” While it sounds a bit too much like the video mix of “Celebration,” which like this song, was produced by Benny Benassi, it’s ridiculously catchy. The intro of the song has Madonna reciting a variation of the Catholic Act of Contrition, something she did to much greater effect on her album Like A Prayer. While it’s supposed to set the tone of the album, it seems unnecessary. We all already know that Madonna’s a “bad girl,” and she doesn’t need anyone’s permission to go “wild.” However, Madonna’s clearly having fun with the song and the concept, and that does a lot to sell it.
The other good songs are scattered throughout the album, starting with the second track, “Gang Bang,” a grimy revenge fantasy produced by William Orbit, where Madonna promises to repeatedly shoot a “bitch” (aka Guy Ritchie) in the head. It’s a surprisingly dark song, and it’s hypnotic until the last minute, at which point it starts to unravel, and Madonna seems like she’s just saying random things to fill up the run time. The propulsive “I’m Addicted,” another Benassi collaboration, is awash in hypnotic vocal effects and commanding, vicious synths. William Orbit also produces the album’s only two true ballads, the quietly sweet “Masterpiece” and the lush, orchestral, melancholy “Falling Free.” It’s these two songs where Madonna’s vocals truly shine and sound most like the trained, confident voice from Evita and Ray Of Light.
Madonna’s tracks with of-the-moment producer Martin Solveig turn out less spectacularly. The album’s first single, “Give Me All Your Luvin,’” is a silly pop tart in all the worst ways, from the insipid lyrics to the cheerleader chorus. It’s briefly buoyed by a delightfully hyper, off-kilter rap by Nicki Minaj, but then it’s just as hampered by a lazy, noncommittal guest moment by M.I.A. Never mind the fact that a 53-year-old mother of four constantly refers to herself without irony as a “girl.” “Turn Up The Radio” has a promising melody and arrangement, and Madonna’s voice sounds fine, but it’s a trifle that’s as pleasant as it is forgettable. “Superstar” sounds far too much like Solveig’s big hit with Dragonette, “Hello,” and has some of the most head-scratching lyrics on the album, with Madonna comparing her love interest to Abraham Lincoln and promising to give him the password to her phone, which would be fine if her love interest was a 21-year-old (oh, wait…).
Other tracks are content to just kind of sit there and be mildly amusing but, ultimately, they’re not Madonna’s best work. They never reach the heights of her best tracks, but they’re never as embarrassing as the infamous “Spanish Lesson” (we’ll get to THAT track in a second). “I Don’t Give A” resurrects the quasi-rap of “American Life” and tries to engender sympathy for an ex-wife who has to decide between making a movie or recording a hit single. It doesn’t quite succeed, despite a catchy chorus and another guest spot by Nicki Minaj. “Love Spent” decides to take a break from dissing her ex and, instead, begs him to spend time with her again. It traffics too much on the “money = love” metaphor, although it has a nice arrangement and flow. “I’m A Sinner” sounds far too much like “Beautiful Stranger” to qualify as a real highlight, but the vocals are great, and the bridge—where Madonna taunts a litany of saints to try and catch her—is amusing in its ridiculousness.
The deluxe version of MDNA contains a grab bag of afterthought tracks, many of which were left off the final cut of the album for good reason. “Beautiful Killer” is a much better Madonna/Solveig collaboration than anything else on the album, with a surprisingly vulnerable vocal and a string octet helping pulse the song along. “I Fucked Up” features Madonna taking on the whole blame for her divorce, and despite its rough start, is a decent, enjoyable track that’s easy to like. “Best Friend” similarly has Madonna regretting the loss of a lover, but the Benassi arrangement does all of the lifting, the constantly panning synth riffs giving the song a momentum that Madonna’s vocal refuses to provide. However, “B-Day Song” is simply awful. It’s rough production makes it sound like an incomplete demo, and the lyrics are some of the most vapid Madonna’s ever recorded. Needless to say, guest star M.I.A.‘s signature quasi-tonality does nothing to help the song along. The album is capped off by a remix of “Luvin’” by LMFAO, which seems as appropriate as it is perfunctory. It’s one of Madonna’s most throwaway singles, remixed by one of the most unnecessary acts currently on the pop charts.
Ultimately, MDNA is a hit-and-miss affair that comes out as a muddled schizophonia. It’s neither a return to form or an effective rejoinder to the women who’ve essentially replaced Madonna in the hearts and minds of many of the iTunes crowd. It lacks the strong identity and mission statement of Lady GaGa’s Born This Way, the infectious sugar rush of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream or the self-referential smirk of Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale. In trying to combine all of those things, MDNA instead turns out as a jumbled collection made up equally of good tracks, bad tracks and eh-whatever tracks. But at least she sounds like she’s having fun, or at least trying very hard to convince us that she’s having fun, and that stands for a lot. Just not enough.
Rating: 6 out of 10 / B-