Rebel Heart pairs classic songwriting and contemporary adventure in Madonna’s least desperate album in years, says Neil McCormick.
“Who do you think you are?” demands a screeching voice on the self-explanatorily titled B*tch I’m Madonna. If anyone in pop has earned the right to assert herself so rudely it is surely Madonna Louise Ciccone, an iconic A-List superstar for over 30 years. It helps that the track in question fizzes with bright energy, a handclapping rave anthem powered by a fantastically wonky synth line that sounds like a vintage arcade game played on an electronic kazoo, and topped off with a snappy Nicki Minaj rap. Madonna delivers the melody like a playground nursery rhyme, chanting about bad behaviour in a butter-wouldn’t-melt sing-song voice.
It could almost be a riposte to the BBC Radio One playlist committee, who have apparently decided the 56-year-old Madonna is no longer relevant to their demographic, relegating her current single, Living For Love, to the middle-aged ravers of Radio Two. It is hard to age gracefully in the competitive field of chart pop. Rock offers different models for the older star: dedicated muso, serious singer-songwriter, nostalgic purist. Pop demands the energy of youth, eternal engagement with the subject matters of sex and courting and a wide-eyed fascination with novelty: new sounds, new styles, new effects. Madonna has been such a trend setter over the decades it has been dispiriting to see her struggling to keep up, like an ageing hipster misusing contemporary slang. Her last two albums were over-pushy, over-sexed and overly reliant on importing chart styles from hot production teams. Rebel Heart is much, much better and the key to the change seems to be Madonna herself. For the first time in years, she doesn’t sound desperate. Indeed, she sounds like she might be having fun.
It is slightly surprising under the circumstances. Her 13th album has been aggressively targeted by hackers and beset by a series of leaks, with mixes and demos popping up all over the internet, leading Madonna to complain, somewhat histrionically, of “artistic rape.” What early versions revealed were numerous collaborators reworking and reshaping every track, including such adventurous hit-makers as Kanye West, Avicii and Diplo. There is, nonetheless, a quality of coherence to the finished album and it really does centre on the star. The tone switches dramatically between dynamic contemporary electro groove adventures, singalong pop and lush synthetic ballads, while veering emotionally between introspective vulnerability and strident defiance. Yet every track adheres to robust, classic songwriting principles, a kind of melodious elegance of structure gleaming through no matter how inventively deconstructed the arrangement. And Madonna sounds relaxed and confident, singing with the sweetness and freshness of her youth, yet with much greater technical accomplishment.
If we can overlook ludicrous techno folk song Devil Pray, in which Madonna informs us that drugs are bad, she has (mostly) checked her tendency to hectoring self-justification and holier-than-thou lecturing. Dance pop tracks like Illuminati and Iconic reflect a contemporary trend for fast, furious and funny mash ups of conflicting ideas, constantly teetering on the edge of collapse but pulling out another beat or hook to keep things moving. Body Shop has a bubblegum lightness that harks back to True Blue, the epic synths of Wash All Over Me recall Ray Of Light’s rich depths, while oral sex slow burner Holy Water manages to be sacrilegious and ear-burningly naughty. She may be chasing the pop zeitgeist rather than setting it these days but at least Madonna sounds like she’s in the game again.
Rebel Heart is out March 9 on Interscope.