Helen Brown reviews the most famous woman in pop’s latest album, Hard Candy
Clad in three different black corsets, Madonna straddles the front covers of next month’s Elle, Dazed and Confused and Vanity Fair magazines. On the latter, the famously muscular arms of pop’s bionic woman appear to be holding up the globe, and the bold font strapline reads: “Unbowed. Uncowed. Still taking on the world”, followed by an asterisk link to the small print at the cover’s corner which reminds readers: “And she’s almost 50!”
She doesn’t look it, of course. She says women shouldn’t be defined by their age, which is cool, although the feminists who once cheered on her blonde ambition are increasingly troubled by her seeming denial of nature.
But what matters at a media preview of her new album, Hard Candy, is not how she looks, but how she sounds.
Madonna is regularly hailed as the mistress of reinvention. Like a Dragons’ Den entrepreneur, she shops for producers to find street subculture sounds that she can market to the mainstream.
She has twisted her brand of pop to fit every dancefloor trend, with her last record, Confessions on a Dancefloor, playing with Seventies gay disco, working in “crumping” dance moves and postmodern Abba samples.
For her 11th studio album, she has not found a new sound but rather latched on to this decade’s banging hip-hop beats, collaborating with über producers Timbaland and the Neptunes, and hip-hop “it” boys Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake .
It’s a confrontational, deep bass-beat that dancers are familiar with, and which keeps Madge’s thin voice low in the mix.
Melodies and hooks are forced into submission by the domination of these familiar thudding beats and brass hooks.
On the opener she invites us to a Candy Shop to the accompaniment of beach bongos and Spanish guitar that recalls her 1980s days on La Isla Bonita.
Never the world’s most original lyricist, she sings of love and sexuality in clichés.
In a song called Incredible, about her husband, Guy Ritchie, she gasps: “Sex with you is incredible/ metaphysical.” Which is nice. Unsurprisingly it’s his favourite lyric on the album.
Which is OK. It won’t shake the world that Madonna thinks she holds up, but you’d dance to it. Perhaps without even noticing that it was made by the most famous woman in pop.
Oh, and Madonna’s favourite hard candy? She claims in interviews that it’s Cadbury’s Creme Egg. She bites the top off and “sucks the good stuff out”.
There is good stuff here, but like the fondant centres of those eggs, it is soft candy, not hard, sweet and a bit naughty, but forgettably flavourless.