I love Madonna. If you’re reading this, you probably knew that already. I’m teased for being a bit of a loon about her, incapable of objectivity when her name is mentioned. It’s a charge I readily admit to. How can you be objective about someone who is in your DNA, whose work has not only soundtracked your life but been instrumental in shaping the person you are? Far from feeling embarrassed about it, I feel privileged that I have found artists like her whom I feel a profound connection with – I always feel sorry for people who don’t have that, who view music as background noise to work or getting ready to go out. I think they’re missing out on so much. They could never understand why ‘objectivity’ (so feted in our society which increasingly fetishes ‘rationality’) is a useless term when it comes to an artist who you just feel on a visceral level, who is so ingrained in your life that they feel like extended family. Yes, I’ll always love Madonna.
Now, this love, this respect, doesn’t mean that I am a gibbering supplicant. Of course I prefer certain albums to others. I don’t like that she is kicking off her tour in Israel, or giving exclusive clips to Perez Hilton, or doing exclusive interviews in The Sun on Sunday. I think some of her songs, such as ‘One More Chance’ or ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, are downright awful. Undeniably, however, it means that my instinct is to look for the positive with her. Perhaps because of this, I happen to think that some myths around her have taken place in recent years. I won’t go into great detail, suffice to say that complaints about her voice and lyrics are absolutely nothing new (and Hard Candy has some great lyrics on it) and the idea, pretty much accepted these days, that she only ever worked with obscure producers for most of her career is just nonsense.
Nevertheless, MDNA feels like a crossroads album for her. I think the reaction to Hard Candy has become overblown with time (and is not unconnected to its r&b influences) yet it was certainly seen as an artistic failure. The Celebration singles were catchy enough but neither were even approaching first-rate Madonna (though the new bonus tracks, ‘It’s So Cool’ and ‘Broken’, were much better). There has of course been a new pretender on the scene (‘fingering all of the poses that Madonna liberated’) and, perhaps most crucially of all, Madonna hasn’t released a studio album since turning 50 and the vast majority of the artists in the charts today are, at most, half her age. Madonna has always refused to become a legacy act (part of the reason why she gets so much stick – she won’t shut up and just let people love what she was) and the success or otherwise of MDNA seems likely to determine her ability to maintain this.
The omens have been mixed, to say the least. In her interviews promoting W.E. there was a worrying sense that she was currently far more enthused by film-making than by music. Yet I absolutely loved ‘Masterpiece’, a boldly understated ballad of the kind she hasn’t recorded in years. ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ is a retro slice of New Wave bliss, harking back to her pre-Madonna days and catchy as hell (it was also, incidentally, an absolutely genius song to return with when everyone was waiting to see how she would ‘top’ Gaga), yet it was difficult to see how it and ‘Masterpiece’ fit together or pointed the way to the future.
Then came ‘Girl Gone Wild’. After the initial excitement of a new Madonna song died down, I felt wretched about this. It’s catchy enough but it’s completely ordinary and without a doubt the worst pre-album single she’s ever released. The vocals sound phoned in, the production is bizarrely flat and for the first time I found myself wondering if we were about to get a truly awful Madonna album.
It’s not due to be released until next Monday in the UK, yet it was ‘released’ last night on AOL Radio in North America. It was quickly ripped and spread across the internet. When I realised what was happening I turned off the tv, plugged my headphones into my laptop and didn’t move for hours. How to explain what I felt? Relief, euphoria, affection, love. MDNA is not only a brilliant album, it’s possibly the best album she’s released since Music in 2000 (which is easily in my top 3 Madonna albums). It’s being called her ‘divorce album’ in many reviews due to the dominance of songs about the end of a relationship. I came to think of Hard Candy as a ‘divorce album’ because it so clearly covered the disintegration of a relationship but, of course, the other album by her that is accepted as being largely influenced by a divorce is the peerless Like a Prayer. Yet only one song on that really directly addressed a crumbling marriage – in contrast, it hangs heavy over the whole of MDNA. Even ‘Girl Gone Wild’ takes on new meaning in this context and it suddenly makes sense. The Act of Contrition recited at the beginning is not only a self-referential nod (in an album full of them, as all of her recent albums are) but a statement of the albums themes – the ability of a person to change themselves, to ‘be good’, the guilt felt in failing, feeling scared of the ‘loss of heaven’ and yet ultimately accepting your ‘true self’. Madonna sings that she is a ‘bad girl, anyway” and, towards the end of the album, dedicates the fun 60s-psychedelia of ‘I’m A Sinner’ to celebrating the fact.
It’s an album about finding yourself alone, with everything that entails (not least the demented anger of the stunning ‘Gang Bang’, a dark techno-noir that sounds unlike anything she has ever done before) and realising (or deciding) that you’ll be okay. My current favourite, ‘I Don’t Give A’, is an anthemic celebration of this message and rams it home with a humour that is so often misinterpreted (from ‘I like to singy singy singy’ to the ‘American Life’ rap). You can’t help but smile at lines such as ‘lawyers suck it up – didn’t have a pre-nup!’ unless you are irredeemably dour. I’ve seen MDNA compared to Confessions on a Dancefloor meets American Life and I think that’s fairly accurate. It combines the irresistible commercial nous of the former with the sonic invention (and, of course, intensely personal themes) of the latter and it somehow works. Nothing about the record feels half-hearted. A track like the shoulda-been-first-single ‘I’m Addicted’ is breathtaking and caused me to start counting the days until I can dance to it in a club. Special mention too, to the brilliantly inventive Abbaesque charms of ‘Love Spent’ and the almost True Blue sounding ‘Turn Up The Radio’.
Who knows if the album will do well. I find myself being far more relaxed about chart performances these days, which is perhaps just as well. I’m just happy to have another great pop album. And that’s not objective – it’s fairly gushing and happy and sincere and not a little embarrassing…but I don’t give a…