Madonna was, for quite awhile there, pretty happy. If you deigned to buy the Swept Away DVD (which most of you didn’t), you’d have seen a special feature on there where Madonna interviews Guy Ritchie on what it was like to direct his wife. Despite that film’s many flaws, in this feature the couple were clearly in love—it was touching and more genuine than any moment in that film. They seemed perfectly suited for one another—her with her grandiose magnitude, and him with his boy-like charisma that seemed to keep her grounded. But, after eight years of marriage they announced they were divorcing. Around that time the awful Hard Candy was released—an album that saw Madonna as a guest star on her own album. Although, now that both Timbaland and Justin Timberlake’s respective music careers have languished, the album seems more reflective of Madonna’s own material than theirs. But I digress, in the four years after Hard Candy, Madonna released a comprehensive (if misguidedly compiled) “Greatest Hits” collection and directed her first full-length feature film, which tanked.
MDNA marks the return of the pop queen so many have forgotten about since the saturation of new pop stars in the mid-2000s. Carelessly promoted by two incredibly lackluster singles that work better within the context of the entire album than in isolation, MDNA is quite possibly Madonna’s best album in over a decade. More danceable than American Life, and more varied and confession-ridden than Confessions on a Dancefloor, the Queen’s 13th studio album—everyone keeps forgetting that I’m Breathless was not the official Dick Tracy soundtrack, but a solo Madonna album with more than half of it original material—is a welcome return to form in so many different ways.
Not only is her pop sensibility in full swing, but it seems like Madonna has re-learned which side her bread is buttered on. Namely, that her fanbase rests (in large part) within the LGBQT community. That’s right, gays have always loved Madonna and during the period in her career when she gravitated away from them, they went on the hunt for other pop stars that would tell them they were “born this way”. Now, Madonna comes with more provocative and assertive messages that don’t try to rationalize explanations, but instead proclaim defiance with religious indignation. The album begins with Madonna reciting the Act of Contrition before launching into a “Celebration”-esque dance number whereby she announces herself a “girl gone wild”. The album is replete with unapologetic and confrontational tunes. On “I’m a Sinner” Madonna sings: “Like a moon with no light of my own / Surf’s the sky for a place to call home / I woke up with my head in the fire / Get my kicks when I’m walking the wire / I’m a sinner and I like it that way.” This isn’t a battle of rhetoric, she’s not trying to change anyone’s mind, and she understands that there will be rampant disapproval over her actions, but she, quite frankly, doesn’t care.
Coupled with her sense of mid-life defiance is the fact that this is probably Madonna’s most explicit work ever. Where Erotica failed to titillate and American Life failed to provoke any truly intelligent political and social insight, MDNA manages to express some pure unadulterated peaks of emotion. Inferred by the album title’s close relation to the acronym for the illicit ecstasy drug, Madonna is reaching heights that she may have been too timid to reveal in previous works. The most exemplary is the demented “Gang Bang” in which she sings, in vivid detail, how she wants to shoot her lover in the head whilst he chauffeurs her into the pits of hell. The track is a definite highlight of the album, ending with a never-before-heard burst of rage where she screams: “Now DRIVE BITCH! / And while you’re at it DIE BITCH!” However, what saves MDNA from denigrating into a ‘90s fit of misplaced Courtney Love anger is the genuine and equally intense antithetical songs. Tracks like “Gang Bang”, “I’m a Sinner”, “I Don’t Give A” and “Some Girls” are seamlessly and ironically complemented by the shim and sheen of love songs such as “Turn Up the Radio”, the badly written “Superstar”, and “Masterpiece”, which indicates that Madonna isn’t just a blubbering mess of bitterness.
There is a complicated muddle of emotion spinning around in MDNA, seen once before in the mesmerizing Ray of Light. Only this time, instead of taking a more spiritual Zen-like approach to the complications that her high-profile life brings, Madonna is swirling about in a schizophrenic state like a madwoman trying to piece together how she came to find herself alone, divorced at 53, and with four children. This sense of introspective wonderment is best exemplified by the beautiful “Falling Free”, the weirdly hypnotic and self-destructive “I’m Addicted”, the album highlight “Love Spent”, and the wonderfully earnest “I Fucked Up”. All of which extrapolate on the contradictory motivations and underlying circumstances that have led her to be singing with such raw intensity.
Although Madonna has always grazed the current state of pop to help formulate her albums, she seems to be more interested in what’s happening on the fringes of pop (such as Robyn) then trying to emulate the already tired mainstream likes of Katy Perry or Rihanna. “Some Girls” with its a-melodic chant that lists off the current trend of “rich party girl” is more reminiscent of Robyn’s “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do”. And while tracks like “Superstar” and “Turn Up the Radio” do mimic the saturated rush of pop tunes currently hitting the top 40, they are really the only two.
MDNA is quite simply the refreshing return to the wheel most Madonna fans have been craving now since 2006’s Confessions on a Dancefloor. She deftly juggles the production variances between her three co-collaborators Benny Bassi, William Orbit, and Martin Solveig in a way that maintains osmosis most other artists only dream of achieving. What’s also interesting about MDNA is not that it is a significantly good album, but that it doesn’t really even need to be, which is why it comes as a pleasant surprise. Madonna has amassed enough of a body of work that if her music career ended with Hard Candy, she would still be the most culturally significant female pop icon around. What MDNA does is establish the resurgence of Madonna being the coolest bitch in the room, not because of what she’s done, but because of what she’s doing.