Album Review: Madonna – MDNA

[Interscope / Live Nation; 2012]

Madonna – “Give Me All Your Love” (feat. M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj)

A few years back, Slant Magazine re-reviewed the much-maligned 2003 Madonna album American Life. An excerpt always sticks with me when I listen to a new Madge record: “In the grand scheme of things, the album might rank as one of the weakest in Madonna’s extensive catalog, and the ones that followed have been as good, if not better, but American Life stands as the last time Madonna seemed to make music without the primary objective of scoring a hit.”

Now, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to assume that any pop star is ever releasing music without trying to score a hit, but the author’s point stands: Madonna’s three subsequent studio albums largely shy away from the musical risk-taking and boundary-pushing that’s made much of her catalog — especially the stretch between The Immaculate Collection and GHV2 — so interesting. With Confessions, she lucked out with a lead single (“Hung Up”) that had both mass appeal and undeniable artistic merit (hell, even Pitchfork included it on its list of the year’s best singles). And the best moments on Hard Candy explored fascinating hybrids of dance-pop and R&B, as on the giddily retro “She’s Not Me” and the paradoxically uptempo balladry of “Incredible.” In both cases, however, lackluster filler tracks outnumbered the highlights, and the latter found Madonna releasing not Hard Candy’s most interesting songs as singles but rather those that seemed to have the most marketability.

With MDNA, her 12th studio LP and first away from Warner Bros., Madonna appears to be following the Hard Candy playbook in terms of promotion, choosing two catchy yet ultimately forgettable tracks to be the album’s first singles, rather than two unique songs that would showcase why Madonna’s still relevant in the first place. Like “4 Minutes,” “Give Me All Your Luvin’” features chart-topping celebrity guests that (presumably) seek to attract a young audience; and like “Give It 2 Me,” “Girl Gone Wild” is catchy yet static, less appropriate for a dance floor than for a Loehmann’s dressing room.

And this new album fails to answer the same question that troubled Hard Candy: what does Madonna herself bring to these songs that a lesser pop star couldn’t? The answer, as it turns out, is not much. Little about MDNA is new or fresh or urgent: we hear Ke$ha’s crunchy synths that have come to dominate top-40 radio; we’re treated to chord progressions almost as tired as the refrigerator-magnet poetry of the lyrics; we get enough half-assed religious allusions to make me wonder whether this is all a stealth marketing campaign for some upcoming reissue of Like a Prayer; and with “Turn Up The Radio,” Madonna gives her own take on the self-esteem-through-pop meme most successfully applied by Katy Perry (via “Firework”). But, I mean, who under the age of 25 still listens to the radio?

As much as I hate to play the relevance card, it’s an unavoidable guiding force on MDNA. “Gang Bang” finds her slipping back into the cartoonish gangster posturing of the Dick Tracy movie, fleshed out with a “dubstep breakdown” about as “authentic” as that which Britney Spears employed on “Hold It Against Me,” which is to say: not at all. I doubt this was her intention, but “Some Girls” accomplishes the unenviable feat of both aping the boastful vibes of “She’s Not Me” and nullifying the girl-power brand the empathetic feminism of “What It Feels Like For A Girl.” Sadly, “Some Girls” is not nearly as exciting as either of those two songs, seeing as how it can’t decide whether it wants to be a generic post-break-up anthem or a personal dig at Guy Richie. As for third-single-contender “Superstar,” well, she opens with a Marlon Brando reference. Whereas Mika cleverly toyed with the old-fashioned associations of Hollywood’s golden age on “Grace Kelly,” Madonna simply uses it as a lyrical placeholder. Other actors referenced include Bruce Lee, John Travolta, and James Dean. Oh yes, there’s nobody the kids love more than John Travolta. “Ooh la la,” indeed.

In fact, it’s not until the eighth track, “I Don’t Give A,” that Madonna finally lets her focus-group-designed guard down. She’s an “ex-wife” arguing about “custody” and regretting not signing a “pre-nup.” She’s also “tweeting in the elevator,” which is surprising to hear, since she’s always let her manager handle her Twitter feed. It’s not the first or last time she references her recent divorce on MDNA, but it’s probably the most direct and thus, at the very least, plausibly relevant. It also — sigh — finds her rapping, which works out as well as it did on “American Life,” which is to say: not at all. Back then, she informed us of how she’s “drinking a soy latte / I get a double shot-ay.” This time around, we listen to her tell us of the difficulties of being a multi-millionaire (and newly-single) mom. Did you know that she has “no time for a manicure”? Famous people: they have problems too!

What saves MDNA from being absolutely terrible, however, is its final three songs, which at least try to bring something new to the table. “Love Spent” intriguingly opens with a banjo solo before launching into yet another post-divorce dance track that’s hardly revelatory but is still better than the mediocrity which precedes it. At least the lyrics are a bit more creative in their use of analogy: “hold me like your money,” she intones. “Frankly, if my name was Benjamin, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.” Ouch. Of course, it follows these lyrical darts with a synth line that blatantly rips off “Hung Up” exactly the same way “Hung Up” didn’t rip off the ABBA song it sampled. Like much of the album, stray synth lines and stuttering rhythms keep this song glued together when it risks running out of momentum, replacing the rewarded patience of, say, Ray of Light with more immediately accessible but ultimately forgettable songs that sound less like the result of organic creative brainstorming and more like “whatever sounds good as a ringtone.”

“Masterpiece,” the album’s first proper ballad, opens with an indisputably stupid line (the Mona Lisa indeed hangs in the Louvre) but is saved by surprisingly resonant processed strings, a refreshingly toned-down finger-snap rhythm, and the kind of enjoyable pathos she used to make “You’ll See” such a huge success back in the day. Closing track “Falling Free” is almost certainly the best thing here, a gorgeous slice of chamber pop that borrows the orchestral flourishes and folksy atmosphere of Nico’s Chelsea Girl. If only the rest of MDNA were as inventive.

Look, I’m a huge Madonna fan. It pains me to write this review. I was really rooting for this album, which I’d hoped would be the confident return to form that Hard Candy was supposed to be. Instead, MDNA feels similarly crowd-sourced and soulless. Part of the joy of her older work is listening to how she took the sounds of the underground club scene of the 80s and early 90s — of which, crucially, she was a part—and made them palatable to mainstream audiences without sacrificing their edgy appeal. But I don’t think Madonna’s a fan of dubstep or four-to-the-floor trance, which makes those genres’ stylistic prevalence on this album all the more disappointing. At least we could tell that she was basking in the strobe-lit glow of Confessions on a Dance Floor. But there’s little of that musical passion here; once again, Madonna has released not a new Madonna album, but rather, a boring pop album that happens to be sung by Madonna. I’d say that MDNA is at the very least “not bad,” but frankly, it’s worse than bad: it’s mediocre. She’s capable of so much better than this… isn’t she?