It’s been years since Madonna had released some new material, which would be good enough to please both critics and fans. We all remember the sweet, yet underwhelming disco-throwback Hard Candy offered us, and well as the carefree euro-dance of MDNA. Both of these albums, while containing some good songs, weren’t strong enough as a body of work. On Hard Candy, Madonna was often out-shadowed by Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland’s productions. On MDNA, she tried too hard to please young fans with basic dance music and generic singles that the rich lyrical layer (mostly treating of her divorce with Guy Ritchie) was put aside in favor of cliché songwriting (remember Turn Up The Radio?). These periods were hard to swallow for fans who knew and loved Ray Of Light or even American Life for its lyrical depths and experimental music, or even Confessions, for its re-invention of Madonna’s persona.
The Rebel Heart era will be remembered mostly for its many leaks (all of the songs from the album somewhat leaked in over a month), but it’s a shame. Rebel Heart is actually a wonderful addition to Madonna’s discography, and her greatest album of the last decade. While we experienced the first six songs early, as Madonna released them on iTunes back in late December, waiting was required for the other ones. And here they are, after the whole album and its 25 (!) songs leaked. And guess what? They’re actually really good.
Those who heard the demos know that Avicii heavily contributed on some of the songs, including the title track. Well, here, his productions are more subtle. Goodbye, good old dance breakdowns, welcome actual melodies. Rebel Heart becomes a country song, which would perfectly fit on Music, while Wash All Over Me is now a symphonic album closer, where Madonna reflects on her loneliness. Of all the demo songs, Body Shop is actually the one who transitioned the most successfully. It is now a sweet, guitar-driven song, where Madonna shines as a playful, loving partner for her lover.
The album raises the question of Madonna’s identity: is she a revolutionist, a loner, a deluded woman, a fierce diva, …? She’s actually all of that, and she says it herself. Yes, she may have flaws and she may come off as a heartless diva, but really, she’s as much a sucker for love as we all are. “Take me with all my stupid flaws”, she sings, and we happily oblige. This album could easily be compared to American Life and its sumptuous, personal ballads, as Madonna delivers here some of her best material in years. Ghosttown, an apocalyptic ballad, Joan Of Arc, a confession of lack of confidence facing the hardest times, and Messiah a masterpiece of unrequited love: they are delicate, honest songs, and the proof that Madonna can actually deliver real down-tempo songs with talent and confidence (remember Take a Bow?).
But let’s not forget the more up-tempo songs: Living For Love and its mix between dubstep and Like A Prayer gospel-throwback is a winning mix, while Hold Tight is a soaring anthem to be. Iconic is the most basic song on the standard version and yet its dark, empowering nature makes it all work alright. Plus, how good is self-reference when it’s about playing Vogue halfway through your songs? The Natalia Kills-penned Holy Water feels straight out of Hard Candy, and its futurist production and cheeky lyrics remind us of what the 2008 album could have sounded like. Madonna also reflects on her career on Veni Vedi Vici, with a very welcome guest verse by Nas.
Madonna offers us her best dance material thanks to eclectic genres mixes and autobiographical exploration, yet she shines the most through her ballads, where the woman behind the persona reveals herself for the first time since 2003. In a world that changes, Madonna stays the same, and we are so much thankful for that Rebel Heart in our lives.
Editor’s rating: 85%Madonna is right where she is supposed to be, with a tasteful, coherent blend of music genres, and introspective writing.