God, is Madonna ever old. I mean, man, she is really, really old for this industry. How does she keep going? What allows her to stand against time whilst contemporaries rise and fall? Who even are her contemporaries? She’s seen so many vanish into relative obscurity over the past three decades. But why has Madonna hung around? Her voice has never been the best, her lyrics are nothing special outside all the religion, and of late she’s caught the eye by alternately being frightfully athletic or just falling over. Maybe it’s her variety, maybe it’s her consistency, or, maybe, it’s her Rebel Heart (it’s not, it’s those other two).
Her latest album is as consistently idiosyncratic as ever, pulling together elements of dub, dance, some acoustic guitar, and even a brief move into reggae; and then throwing on top lyrics that shift between self-reflexive and sincere, and shamelessly debauched. It leads to an album that’s difficult to come to conclusions over. It’s a struggle to reconcile the disparate tones Madonna works in on Rebel Heart, and her attempts at modernising her sound by working with producers Avicii and Diplo work only fleetingly. It’s telling that, early into my first listen of the album, I found myself writing an extended comparison between Madonna and the film, Still Alice. It wasn’t flattering. By the album’s end, however, I was largely sold. Listening now, I find myself continuing to fluctuate between these two modes of thought, shifting in time as Madonna drifts between sincerity (good) and desperate attempts at relevance (very bad).
The album starts off on a relatively strong footing, with Living For Love straddling the old and new with relative success. It’s a song that seems emblematic for much of the album – underpinned by a vintage Madonna dance feel and piano that calls back to classics such as Like A Prayer. Yet the song proceeds to self-destruct in a vortex of ‘new’ stuff on the chorus, and Madonna becomes utterly lost amid the production work.
As noted earlier, Madonna’s voice has never been strong, but it’s always been one of her trademarks. It is a thing that needs to be handled with ingenuity and delicacy, at once enhancing and masking her voice with tasteful effects work, but also making sure not to lose her unique character. For much of this album that character is lost. Will Orbit managed it with startling success on a series of albums at the turn of the century, reinventing the Queen of Pop with atmospheric production that lent an ethereality that contrasted well with her full-blooded, if not always polished, vocals. There’s none of that dynamism here, with the sound being more Theory Of Everything than Ray Of Light, buried under a mass of auto-tune. It makes for ugly, ugly music at times, and works to severely undercut her attempts at sincerity on many tracks.
The one moment the suffocating sludge of over-production works in the album’s favour is on Iconic, a song preceded by some words of wisdom by the inimitable Mike Tyson that then proceeds to somehow not be terrible. The spoken word chorus of “Iconic. Ironic.” has a cleverly jarring, glitched-out vibe that is both iconic and, yes, ironic. The song is something of a turning point for the album. It comes hot on the heels of what is undoubtedly the nadir - Bitch I’m Madonna, which sees the Queen of Pop try and compete with Queen of something Nicki Minaj. It’s a mess. Madonna attempts this kind of half-rap thing that she employs at other points on the album, and, bad as it is elsewhere, it’s never more terrible than here. But, from Joan Of Arc onwards, these kind of attempts at relevance ease up, and Madonna stops trying to be anything other than herself.
It brings the self-reflexivity of the album to the fore, and songs like Heartbreakcity can seem like a pop parallel to Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. The effects-free vocals of this track are unquestionably the best the album serves up, which is unquestionably linked to the production ceasing to try and hold her to some kind of artificial perfection. Even Bodyshop, in which sex and vehicle repair are linked in stunningly heavy-handed fashion, comes across less as a porn scenario set to music and more like a slightly raunchier twist on the heartwarmingly sincere, amusingly innocent romance of The Beach Boys. It’s bizarre. Suddenly, with Madonna’s character behind the music rather than the production, it seems like she can get away with anything. The religion/sex dichotomy at the heart of her music seems less gratuitously forced, and more like subtle flavouring to remind you who you’re hearing. She even samples Vogue on the next track and pulls it off.
It all still seems like fresh material, but injected with a wry sense of her own musical self. She stops trying to be an artist from today, and starts being an artist who survived to today. It’s the move from Songs Of Innocence – attempts at being alternately sincere and relevant but coming off as artificial – and The Next Day - a self-reflexive study of a star too esteemed to ever really fail, criss-crossing through a career of myriad modes whilst injecting new flavours to varying success.
Unfortunately, however, for an album to take half an hour-plus to get to the point where it’s worth listening to is unforgivable in my books. This album could shed half its weight and it would gain a whole star. Not even replace it with better stuff. Just make it not be there. The four tracks of the deluxe edition build off where the core album ends, pushing to better, more distinctive things, and seem like better fits for the album that Madonna wanted to make, rather than the one she thought she needed to make. The title track is also inexplicably reserved for the Deluxe edition. It’s very odd, although the track itself is pretty dull. Even odder, since dull is one thing that this album rarely is. It’s always compelling for some reason, but only at its denouement is it usually for the right ones. Madonna, you’re still the Queen, and always have been – you don’t need Avicii or Nicki Minaj or anyone else to carry you.