Three stars out of four
Madonna’s 12 previous albums — Like a Virgin, Bedtime Stories and her relatively epic Confessions on a Dance Floor, to name a few — confirm her branding technique, each connecting a concrete idea with themes conveyed through the songs, more or less. The outlier, her forgettable last album, MDNA, was a coy reference to the drug MDMA (a.k.a. Molly or Ecstasy).
Her latest, Rebel Heart, is a far better album than MDNA — cleaner, crisper, less a flimsy attempt at drawing fickle youth ears and more a sturdy rhythmic platform to showcase some of the most striking tracks she’s made in 15 years (specifically, since Music, her last great album).
From the start, Rebel Heart spotlights a clarity of intention, one the artist conveys in notes that accompanied the release: “I knew I wanted to explore the duality of my personality which is renegade and romantic. And I wanted to write good songs…. That’s it.”
Featuring production by artists including Avicii, Diplo, Kanye West and Sophie and guests including Chance the Rapper, Nicki Minaj and (in spoken form) Mike Tyson, it has completeness to it rather than the mishmash of could-be stabs at relevance that dots her lesser work.
Madonna cites as inspiration rebels such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and John Lennon, all of whom “changed the world. They took the road less traveled and they made all the difference. You can’t be a rebel and not be willing to take the consequences.” A vague reference to her recent backward tumble during the Brit Awards? If not, it should be.
Regardless, hers is a noble goal, even if the stakes in her brand of rebellion are hardly of apartheid proportions. Focus, though, drives tracks such as Illuminati, Joan of Arc and Iconic into that sweet spot between club frenzy and revelatory lyricism, the kind that can lift spirits to emotional heights.
They display a master of dance pop harnessing a mostly male team of contemporary beat producers and songwriters to merge word and rhythm. She explores ego-tastic peaks (Bitch I’m Madonna, Iconic); devotion (Ghosttown); the desire for salvation and the allure, and destructiveness, of drug-fueled revelry (Devil Pray); bodily fluids (Holy Water); and in the defiant, minor-key HeartBreakCity, snare-rolling confessions.
Holy Water is the weakest of the bunch. She raps during Illuminati — and doesn’t sound totally ridiculous, no small feat. That one, a Kanye West-co-produced shout-out to the all-seeing eye and the secretive group of would-be mystics, is one of the record’s highlights.
Granted, the struggles our heroine describes must be endured by conformists and rebels alike. Even bland office drones suffer heartbreak. Still, she’s not trying to fool anyone on Rebel Heart. She’s just being Madonna, an artist who has long prospered by matching her vision with track-makers and lyrical collaborators at their own creative peaks. Over the decades she’s tapped talent such as Nile Rodgers, Shep Pettibone, Babyface, Mirwais, William Orbit and Stuart Price at key moments, bringing out the best in them while tweaking the tones for optimum Madonna nowness.
Those skills permeate Rebel Heart, but that’s not what makes this one so engaging. It’s in the structures, born, according to Madonna, after she opted not to build tracks with a computer in a studio but “to sit down with various songwriters and write songs. I wanted to sing all the songs from top to bottom without any other people involved.”
Granted, there’s nothing rebellious about that per se. Most songs, brilliant and terrible alike, are similarly made. But Rebel Heart” stands sturdily because those foundations have been fortified by producers and, as such, are thick and modern, with heavy bass, lots of tweaky snare and high-hats and a midrange action that snakes through songs like locomotives winding through mountainous tracks.
Madonna, in fact, describes in her notes the process of making Rebel Heart as being “like a train — people getting on and getting back on the train.”
That’s fine as a metaphor for the process and for the success of Rebel Heart. A better one comes in another reference within her note to listeners: “Like Michael Moore says, ‘You can’t stick your chin out and not expect to get punched.’”
Nor can you live your creative life in front of millions without giving yourself whiplash every once in a while. The difference between pop agitators like Madonna and her lesser offspring is one of determination. Rebel Heart, like its creator, pushes through the pain and, more often than not, lands solidly and with great grace on its feet.