It seems to take a few years to fully assess a new Madonna album. That may be true for many recording artists, but there’s always so much excitement and anticipation around a new Madge disc, it’s only after that’s died down a bit can one determine how it stands up to her best projects.
The downside to being such a consistent hitmaker is that she has no “Tapestry,” “Jagged Little Pill” or “Miseducation” to her name. All her albums have several great songs, but there’s always a dud or two — “Words” from “Erotica,” “Mer Girl” from “Ray of Light,” “I Love New York” from “Confessions” or “Spanish Lesson” from “Hard Candy” — that keep her from having a start-to-finish masterpiece. Even “Like a Prayer,” which many consider her most consistent effort, gets derailed slightly by the clunky “Love Song,” a Prince duet.
The new “MDNA,” out this week on new label Interscope after Madonna spent decades at Warner Bros., is refreshingly clunker free. Only a couple tracks — the throwaway “Turn Up the Radio” and nursery rhyme-ish “I’m a Sinner” — sound like they could have been B-sides. As expected, there are several killer batches of smoking dance songs — more on those in a sec — but the biggest surprise is the bonus material on the deluxe edition.
Get the no-frills version and you’re missing out on some mind-blowing stuff. “Beautiful Killer” is the most traditional bonus cut here, an old-fashioned pop song with a strings topcoat, but then things get really interesting. “I Fucked Up” sounds a little ho-hum at first, even though it’s a great idea for a song. It kicks into high gear with a killer middle section that slowly works up a nice lather. “B-day Song” is cute and silly with a late ‘60s vibe. The whole project simmers to a shattering climax with “Best Friend,” a mid-tempo barn burner that beautifully captures the mixed emotions of a shattered relationship courtesy of some of Madonna’s all-time most insightful lyrics and the Benassi production duo.
Madonna, acknowledging (presumably) the complicated relationship she shared with ex-husband Guy Ritchie, sums things up cleverly when she suggests they were “driving with two hands on the clutch.” She gets the anger out elsewhere — on the campy, crunchy “Gang Bang” and rap-doused “I Don’t Give A,” which veers into high drama with its “Carmina Burana”-esque outro. But once the anger subsides, “Friend” is the more cathartic experience, both musically and emotionally.
It didn’t take a genius to realize these two had a complicated marriage — fans sensed they were a mis-match from the “I’m Going To Tell You a Secret” documentary and the last album’s melancholy “Miles Away.” But it’s refreshing to hear the seemingly invincible Madonna address and assess her own disappointments. She’s never so much as acknowledged that her brother wrote an unflattering memoir; at least with her marriage, “MDNA” brings insight and closure. She can pose for glamorous photos, pull off tour acrobatics and craft mindless dance pop til the end of time, but all that resonates more when we have a sense of the woman behind the face, and “MDNA” brings us that.
Though more notable for its eye-popping video, album opener “Girl Gone Wild” is light, catchy fun as is “I’m Addicted,” first single “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” and the aforementioned “Killer.” The Golden Globe-winning ballad “Masterpiece,” the theme from the “W/E” movie Madonna directed, brings things to a lovely finish along with the refreshingly lush “Falling Free,” which doesn’t even have a rhythm track, giving the beat-heavy album a nice change of pace.
It’ll take awhile for all this to sink in, but regardless of whether U.S. radio gives its singles the time of day (though “Luvin” did briefly crack the U.S. top 10), “MDNA” is a resoundingly solid effort. Helmed by producers new (Martin Solveig) and old (William Orbit), “MDNA” is a more unified, less trend-influenced album than “Hard Candy” and that bodes well for its ultimate place in her increasingly vast canon.