Do you want the good news or the bad news? Well, before I deliver both (eventually) I have to get something off my chest: Madonna is The Don, The Boss, The Dude, Her Majesty of Everywhere. Nobody in this universe can touch her. If I read another preamble or review about her latest album MDNA that builds context around Madonna’s place in a world that now contains Lady Gaga or compares her vocal pop abilities with those of Britney Spears, I am done with that person. Deleted.
There is no need whatsoever to talk about Madonna in relation to Gaga, Britney, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kylie, Kitty Batshit Brucknell, or anyone else with a vagina, a chart song and a sense of drama. People have said it before and I will rip them off and say it again: None of these women would know how to put one hip in front of the over if it weren’t for Madonna. The popstars that have succeeded (as in “come chronologically after”) Madonna do not form part of Madonna’s Sphere. They are tiptoeing around her world, grateful of being given the limelight for a minute while the “Queen of Pop” has been momentarily distracted doing whatever she does to chill out (Ryvita snacks and/or 21-year-old dancers… Madge FTW).
Just because popstars have Being A Woman in common, doesn’t mean they have anything to do with Madonna’s job. (I don’t imagine fans of Paul Weller would be impressed if his latest was judged according to “where the Modfather sits” with post-Weller products such as Miles Kane or Kasabian. Music fans would not be impressed because THAT WOULD BE EXTREMELY RUDE, and pointless. Weller isn’t sitting with his guitar thinking about what Liam Gallagher’s peddling in Pretty Green. Similarly, Madonna isn’t downloading Rosetta Stone: Advanced German because Lady Gaga has Rilke tattooed up her arm.) Madonna is not thinking about all the “others” (…maybe she is just a little). They weren’t there when she started her career and they likely will not be there when she finishes it (insert large IF she finishes it). When asked what she thought of Lady Gaga a few months ago by Graham Norton Madonna’s response may as well have been: “[shrug]…[rolls eyes]… Whatever.” If you’re going to put MDNA in “context”, get it right: when Madonna sits down to write an album, the only person “Madonna” has to compete with is… MADONNA.
And imagine that - you’re Madonna. The facts: You’ve sold 300 million records since 1979; You are still only 53; You have built a career on outdoing yourself; You have more fans than the Americas have people; You were responsible for ’80s pop hits like Get Into The Groove, Like A Virgin and Papa Don’t Preach; You got naked – really naked – on coffee tables; You are responsible for Ray Of Light; You made (upper case) Music; You own Like A Prayer; Confessions On A Dancefloor was something YOU did… I could just throw words around like “Frozen” (ZOMG), “Cherish” (amazarama), “Sorry” (multilingual!), “VOGUE” (FFS!) all day long and you’d get only one pixel of the picture. It must be exciting but also terrifying being as successful as Madonna because - frankly - what the hell do you do next? Who do you allow in? Is it a risk even opening your mouth again to do an Ocado order in case you speak a sentence less poignant than “Beauty’s where you find it”? For Madonna, it’s enough trying to deal with herself. So let’s consider Madonna in light of Madonna please.
Which brings me to the point: is MDNA any good? I will start with the bad news. I’m not sure I was in the same room as everyone else at the Madonna MDNA listeners party (at Abbey Road Studios, *wees with excitement*). All the cliched talk in the papers and blogs about an hour following the playback was of a “Return to form” blah-blah-blah… Not since Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris has there been such overuse of the phrase. And, btw, Midnight In Paris was charming, funny and intelligent but it was NOT a return to form. “On form Woody Allen” is Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah And Her Sisters… To say Midnight In Paris was in the same vein is not only wrong, it’s an insult to his best work. I suppose in this respect (and in this respect only) Madonna is just like Woody Allen; a visionary who continues to create (thank GOD) but is in a post-apex stage of their career, their fans desperate to re-live the golden age, like a Manchester United supporter dying to see a less acclaimed side win the Treble. When you consider Ray Of Light or Immaculate Collection or Music or Confessions On A Dancefloor and then you listen to MDNA, you are no longer in the same ballpark. Nobody should be asking if it’s a good album by modern pop standards. That’s not the question Madonna’s asking. Is it a “great” album by Madonna standards? No. Well… it depends on which half of the album you listen to.
I am sorry to have to say this but MDNA was a frustrating experience. Members of the press heard the Deluxe Edition of MDNA, which was a 12-track album followed by a further four tracks. The beginning of MDNA (and when I say “beginning” I mean the “first seven or eight tracks”) are simply not Madonna. They could be by anyone because Madonna’s voice has been drowned out by pulsating, flat, uninteresting European thuds (incorporated with hints of dubstep break-it-downs to keep things “current”). The lyrical couplets are inexcusable. Madonna is reduced to the cheerleader her faceless dancers portray in the Gimme All Your Luvin’ video (Lourdes probably has more to say in her teenage brain). Worse still, Madonna (being a sophisticated 53-year-old goddess) doesn’t sound like she’s having a good time. She doesn’t sound confident. It’s as though she’s given a platform to Benny Benassi and Martin Solveig - two (not especially “with it”) European dance producers – and forgotten her own part.
Opening track Girls Gone Wild nods to Madonna’s last “GREAT” record Confessions On A Dancefloor but it’s just a nod. (Note: I’m wildly suspicious of the numerous people I’ve met who think that album is anything other than astonishing). The track is a bit meh. And by that I mean that there were electro-rock singles by Bodyrockers (I Like The Way You Move) and Bodyrox (Yeah Yeah) years ago that are catchier and do the same job. Gang Bang follows as a far heavier, murder on the dancefloor-type belter that picks up the attitude (it wouldn’t be hard though given Girls Gone Wild’s “Girls just wanna have fun” message) with lyrics like “Bang bang, shot you dead/Shot my lover in the head”. You might not pick these lyrics out, however, given the constant distraction of the sound of a samurai sword being unsheathed (I’m glad Madge listens to These New Puritans in the gym). To be honest, this song might grow on me with another listen on a crosstrainer, it’s sort of like Volumes 1 and 2 of Kill Bill in 6 minutes. Third track I’m Addicted (or as I might dub it I’m Totally Addicted To Bass) sounds like Swedish House Mafia, Tiesto and Justice (also ATB circa 1999), Madonna’s vocal drowned out again by phat beats like a tiny particle getting lost in the Tron Grid. By the fourth track, Turn Up The Radio, my new (beautiful) MDNA notepad reads “bored.com”. It’s clear that Madonna is not making waves anymore, she’s chasing them. That would be fine if the songs were good… BUT WHERE ARE THE SONGS? If I wanted to have my head pummelled by this sort of music (which I do often) I’d get the Plastikman going.Madonna is not only looking to other’s conquered territory, she’s not learning anything from it.
Give Me All Your Luvin’ – the first single – is not the buoyant lead single we are used to hearing. (Probably why she’s since rush-released Girl Gone Wild). It’s followed by the first track produced by William Orbit – Some Girls – which sheds light on Madonna, The Control Freak. Orbit sounds nothing like himself. It’s as if he’s been told: “I’m doing an album with Benassi and Solveig dude, so try and do what they do, yeh?” What is the point? At this stage in the proceedings I’m dying to hear any real melody… the Tetris theme tune would do. But no. Track 7 is Superstar where melodies finally come to the fore (so saccharine it’s a rather too extreme sugar rush). I Don’t Give A (do we fill this bit in?) is the first moment of real interest. It is the most intriguing song on MDNA. The lyrics allude to the breakdown of her marriage to Guy Ritchie, Nicki Minaj steals the limelight with a far superior rap to the one on Gimme All Your Luvin’ and it genuinely sounds unique. But right now I’d take an amazing pop song over “unique”.
So where are we? Track 9. TRACK NINE. Now for the good news; it is all uphill from here. Four absolutely stunning tracks produced by William Orbit at long last show why we’re still listening to Madonna. I’m A Sinner should be a major single. It’s a change of gear, there is an immediacy to its simplicity, and ABOVE ALL, it’s confident – Madonna knows exactly what she’s doing and nails it. Love Spent is an update on Orbit’s Balearic mid-’90s euphoria, where strummed acoustic guitar meets the disco vibes of Confessions… Masterpiece, of course, a moving piece of cinematic balladry has already won a Golden Globe. It’s at this point that I realise: when you go back to the drawing board there are basic elements required from a pop song – lyrics, melody and rhythm. The only thing MDNA cared about up until Track 9 was a beat. On Track 12 Falling Free, these three elements of songcraft align in (gushing hyperbole alert) THE MOST SENSATIONAL MADONNA MOMENT OF THE PAST 10 YEARS. (I might need a second listen to confirm that but you can legitimately get Ray Of Light-style excited.)
Some more good news… The 4 tracks on the deluxe edition are brilliant (or comparatively brilliant). And what’s seriously WEIRD is that these are four tracks in the vein of the first half of MDNA that are BETTER than the the first half of MDNA (SERIOUSLY MADGE WHAT THE ACTUAL F?!?!?). I could remove tracks 3,4 and 7 and insert Fucked Up, B-Day Song and Best Friend immediately (I am not a qualified A&R though) and I’d have an MDNA that is lyrically better, far more sophisticated and FUN (with a capital F-U-N).
So considering all of this (Jeez, I do go on) in a world of Madonna versus Madonna, MDNA by Madonna is not an album that can stand up against the Great Madonna albums of which Confessions On A Dancefloor was the most recent (it really was - I listened to it from start to finish last night and it is complete, futuristic and relentless. So piss off all you haters). Yes, we all know the rules - Madonna makes a belter every second album. BUT… MDNA as reviewed by most members of the press as a four star “return to form” is a three star album of two halves, one half of which had the potential to complement the sublime other half had Madonna brought someone in (me) who could have told her to put the bonus Deluxe tracks on the proper LP.
Saying all this, if the Superbowl performance (a blueprint in live pop shows) is anything to go by the tour will be amazing. And I am most definitely going. Twice. Also, some of the bouncier tracks are great pre-party uppers and she looks better than anyone will ever look (or has ever looked). Madonna remains astonishing but we needn’t get carried away with ourselves. Let’s “be honest” about MDNA, for our own sake and more importantly for Madonna’s. Madge only knows she’s earned that level of respect.