Interscope, Live Nation
At first glance, it seemed like Madonna had blown her umpteenth comeback bid prematurely with MDNA’s ordinary-to-awful lead single, “Give Me All Your Luvin,'” which screamed tryhard right down to its tired cheerleader motif and Nicki Minaj, um, rap. It had a shelf life about as long as bread, except people like bread. Bad news for Madge, who’s looking to regain her status as pop’s premier dancefloor queen in the age of Gaga. Performance art was never Madonna’s thing; she sells sex and she’s proud of it. But how do you do that when you’re 53?
The opening song on and latest single from the album, “Girl Gone Wild,” is almost as painful in its attempt to reduce our diva to current pop-radio standards. Turns out it doesn’t matter, though — that Super Bowl halftime show is the real template for this particular comeback bid, even if it does place her squarely in the over-50 club by definition. MDNA, like that medley, is an overview of everything Madonna does well, and that is at once what is good but not quite great about it.
Right from the second track, she’s talking shit to her ex, Guy Ritchie, in a track that’s nasty in a whole new way. That is, she murders him about two dozen times in the course of the song, claiming “I thought it was you / And I loved you the most / But I was just keeping my enemies close.” She mines the same sentiment with “Love Spent” (“I want you to hold me / Like you hold your money”) and on one of the album’s best tracks, “I Don’t Give A” (“I tried to be a good girl / I tried to be your wife / Diminished myself / And I swallowed my light”). It’s not just that she’s finally showing her darker side instead of just her ass — the new Madonna actually comes up with catchier songs when she’s pissed. This is important for her continued survival. Eye of the tiger, and all that.
Unfortunately, her desire to make a dance-pop album circa 2012 means that she didn’t stay on that theme, coming up instead with a dozen beats by seven different producers, solid songs that really don’t add up to anything. So for the rest of her (therapy) session, she tries on some old outfits: Madge the sexual predator (“I’m Addicted”), Madge the fabulous (“Some Girls”), Madge the swoony teen girl (“Masterpiece,” “Superstar”), and Madge the pure-pop partier (“Turn Up the Radio”). The reason MDNA qualifies as a genuine rebirth, her first valid one since Ray of Light, is that even her attempts to remind us of her old stature sound better than almost anything on the radio but Gaga. They’re tighter than Rihanna, realer than Beyonce, and smarter than Nicki.
For a true home run, Madonna needed a solid focus on a new direction, a definitive statement, not a veteran’s summing-up. Only one song here ties all the disparate threads of her past into a modern whole, and that’s “I’m A Sinner.” Cannily reminiscent of electroclash, but with a ridiculously catchy chorus and a litany of saints namechecked for extra shock, it manages to combine the spiritual odyssey of Ray of Light, the delicious “new feminism” of her Like A Virgin period, and the girl-group bubbliness of True Blue into a new manifesto that says you can be fabulous without being perfect. Certainly this comeback, even with all its self-consciousness, shines brighter than she has in years. Can Madonna be happy without Jesus, love, or sex? Yes. She should run with that.
Graded using the Third Eye Method:
Impact: 79. This is the kind of thing Adele might listen to when she decides to dry her eyes and go clubbing again.
Innovation: 55. Madonna knows enough to drop a few dubstep wubs here and there, but she’s not using cutting-edge EDM producers any more. Good thing this is a straight pop album.
Integrity: 78. The closing ballad “Falling Free,” as close to heartwrenching as Madge gets, proves she’s gotten real. The good news is that she can also make real seem fun.