Twenty years ago, when Madonna was at the top of her game, she published her provocative art book “Sex.” In it, she included photos of herself in various states of undress and wrote about the art of seduction. Her tips included wearing good perfume, garter belts but no underpants and that “on every date you have to say one really disarming thing.”
Decades later, the now-53-year-old confirms, for better or for worse — OK, worse — that Madge of the Dance Floor is nothing if not consistent. On her 12th studio album, “MDNA,” she follows the advice she laid out at her peak. Madonna is garter-belt sexy for “Girl Gone Wild,” metaphorically takes off her undies on “I’m Addicted” and tosses off half a dozen typically “disarming things” about her private life (thus the reason that this has been dubbed her “divorce album”).
But the Madonna of today has lost the art of surprise, and the shock and awe she used to inspire with each new move have gone the way of her bullet bra and taffeta skirts. More important, Madge seems to have lost her ability to create in that magical space that pushes pop forward while remaining completely of the moment.
The music here is certainly not disarming, and while it’s dangerous to speculate on the listening habits of artists, “MDNA” more than anything sounds like an album made by someone who’s lost touch with the desires of today’s popular music while pursuing other endeavors, including child-rearing and moviemaking.
For example, the second song, “Gang Bang,” has a good beat you can dance to, as does “I’m Addicted,” a driving love anthem produced by Italian superstar DJ Benny Benassi, so both accomplish a key goal of most of Madonna’s work. But like the rest of “MDNA,” neither offers much in the way of innovation.
The album offers evidence that the singer has fallen behind, that she is no longer setting the conversation in a genre she essentially invented — blending Top 40 pop with club music. While Madonna keeps banging away, the template she helped build is ruling the charts via the work of Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Kesha, each of whom not only sings about club life but also lives it, thus delivering more convincing fantasies.
Yes, a few tracks on “MDNA” are punctuated with a dubstep “bass-drop,” a current electronic effect-song hook typified by a halting sonic skid and massive low-end rumble that drives dance floors batty. But each appearance of it sounds tacked on “for the kids,” as if Frank Sinatra had used a sitar on “My Way” in 1969.
Much of the music on the new album could have appeared on any random electronica collection of the last decade. Frenchman Martin Solveig’s work at its worst feels like watered-down Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx, and the bonus track, “Masterpiece,” features a dance hall-infected rhythm that sounds positively 2006. And despite a few life-injecting moments with rapper Nicki Minaj, the deluxe package also features a remix by joke-rap duo LMFAO, which the Madonna of 1992 no doubt would have ridiculed.
To Madonna’s credit, her idea of disarmament has evolved on “MDNA,” and it includes addressing her 2008 divorce from husband director Guy Ritchie. The songs that address the end of love, such as “Falling Free,” co-produced by longtime collaborator William Orbit, are surprisingly transparent stories about her split and arrive with genuine emotion. But none is as inspired as her more personal work over the years, from “Papa Don’t Preach” to “Frozen.”
On Madonna’s best albums — “Like a Virgin,” “Ray of Light” and “Music” — she lived in that pocket between pop’s present and future, and with each hit single she offered a dose of the new that confirmed her ability to seduce us. But the enemy of seduction is familiarity. The power to jar a lover requires the element of surprise, one that’s sorely lacking on “MDNA.” We’re 30 years into this relationship, after all. Surprising us at this point would require a drastic new approach, one that Madge seems unable to muster this time around.
The looming question is whether the next step for Madonna is a sordid affair, a relationship counselor or a divorce lawyer.