Most people’s — even celebrities — public and private selves don’t have as wide a gulf between them as Madonna’s, one imagines. Her status as a pop culture icon and the human vulnerability underneath are juxtaposed wonderfully on “Rebel Heart,” the new album out this week that’s easily her best effort since “Confessions on a Dance Floor” and her most personal album since “Ray of Light.”
She collaborates with Diplo, Avicii and others to help bring in fresh sounds, but the message and mission of the album is pure, unadulterated Madonna.
On opening track and lead single, “Living for Love,” an impossibly catchy dance track, she finds strength to move on with her life and embrace love, regardless of previous heartbreak (or Brit Awards tumbles). The brilliantly composed “Messiah” is a somber and reflective ballad and would not have been out of place on “Ray of Light,” serving as a foil to the much more optimistic breakup song “Living for Love.”
“Ghosttown” is another perfectly lovely ballad. The auto-tune can get a bit distracting, but Madonna makes up for it in lyrical and production savvy.
“Bitch, I’m Madonna” and “Unapologetic Bitch” aren’t particularly distinguishable, though Nicki Minaj fans may prefer the latter where Minaj has a verse leagues better than the couplets she forced out on “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” It also has a great breakdown, which is likely thanks to Diplo. Both songs are up-tempo, danceable tracks that, lyrically, capture the tough, Teflon-like image of Madge.
As a contrast, “Joan of Arc” is haunting. Madonna expresses the pain she often feels when dealing with insecurities, criticism and other negative aspects of fame. In expressing her vulnerability, Madonna may have penned her most honest lyrics to date here.
Likewise, “Wash All Over Me” is a beautiful ballad likely describing Madonna’s struggle in the modern-day music industry, where she’s torn between trying to keep up with younger artists or going gently into that good night and, heaven forbid, retire.
Perhaps the most memorable song is the last and titular track, “Rebel Heart,” a jaunty tune tailor made for repeat listening, but one that also packs lyrical heft, where Madonna addresses her professional rebellions and need for attention. While she describes feelings of isolation, she is confident in her choices and reinventions and remains steadfast in her individualistic nature. It’s a much more mature reflection on her character than the two “Bitch” cuts.
The album isn’t without its sub-par moments. In “Devil Pray,” Madonna lists all the drugs she knows how to do. And “S.E.X” is about as subtle as its title suggests, trading in masterful lyrics and metaphor for dead horse beating. “Body Shop” borders on novelty but is musically interesting while “Illuminati” does little but perplex.
“Rebel Heart” is a musically inventive compilation and lyrically superior to more recent Madonna efforts. Across 19 tracks, she describes struggling to balance public perceptions of her strength with her hidden insecurities. It’s the album Madonna has been trying to produce for a decade. Regardless of its commercial success, it’s a brilliantly crafted album and could launch Madonna’s next heyday.