Yesterday we repaired to London's Abbey Road Studios to waggle our ears just the once at Madonna's new album MDNA. The Queen Of Pop's first album for new label Interscope (Polydor in the UK), it sees her join forces with Italian housemeister Benny Benassi and France's Martin Solveig, and team up again with Ray Of Light and Music cohort William Orbit.
Ahead of a standard-format review nearer to MDNA's release date (26th March), Laurence Green runs through the album track by track...
Girl Gone Wild
Kicks off with a spoken word intro – already placing it in classic Madonna territory. It’s that ego-centricness of Confessions On A Dancefloor all over again, but with even louder beats. There’s the slick veneer of the commercial dance number here too, echoing recent Greatest Hits teaser single Celebration. The vocals aren’t Madonna’s best – a defining feature across the album – but when the clubland backing is so explosively loud, that’s hardly a detracting feature. There’s even a persistent energy of sorts to the vocals that, twinned with the buzz-saw synths, firmly establishes Girl Gone Wild as the sound of ‘now’. With its aping of the ‘girls just wanna have some fun’ refrain, there’s a real '80s sentiment beating at the heart of the track too.
"If I see that bitch in hell I’m gonna shoot them in the head again" – Madonna’s brawling for some action here, via a filthy, almost Erotica-esque onslaught of breathy vocals. It teases and plays, proper between the covers stuff; which you’d kind of expect from a song with a title as blatantly lewd as Gang Bang. At moments it all sounds like something off Daft Punk's Tron soundtrack; hard techno, brutal, uncompromising and industrial. Gang Bang feels vital and on point in a way Madonna hasn’t sounded in years. There’s police sirens and an obliging dubstep middle-eight (there was always going to be one on the album, wasn’t there?) – Everything about Gang Bang is menacing and comes on at full-throttle, right down to Madonna’s flippant remark of "I’m going straight to hell".
The burbly techno synths continue here, again it’s all very Tron-esque. If Confessions was dancey, I’m Addicted is dancey with a capital D. The bass positively explodes outwards and it’s refreshing to see Madonna putting out something with real punch. For an artist of her age and experience, she could easily rest on her laurels, and I’m Addicted is about as far away from that as it’s possible to get. Some rave synths get whacked into the mix too, like it’s 1991 all over again – this leads into a hyper-fast outro of the "MDNA!" hook, putting the track forward as a real centrepiece model for the rest of the album.
Turn Up The Radio
This is where the real Madonna melodies of old surface, mining the kind of exuberant stuff that characterised her '80s greats – that playful spirit is well and truly back. As obvious as its airwaves-courting title might be, this is *the* big radio hit on the album, the kind stations up and down the country will lap up in the summer. There’s an incredible abundance of optimism here, a carefree abandon in thrilling degrees of magnitude. Here Madonna is the American queen triumphant, proclaiming "I wanna go fast and I’m gonna go far" in an up-and-at-em call of readiness for life and anything it chooses to throw at her.
Give Me All Your Luvin
In hindsight, and with the hype and drama of the Superbowl performance behind her, the truth is that Madonna doesn’t really need Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. on the album. In the wider scope of MDNA as a whole, they pale into the background – though to be fair to them, they’re a much better fit than Timbaland and Justin Timberlake were on Hard Candy. Clearly, the aspect of sisterhood combined has something going for it though, and it’s nice to hear Madonna so rejuvenated and youthful here, having some fun and laughs with her ‘hip’ pals.
The first of the five William Orbit tracks on the album, and it kicks off with yet more of the palpably massive levels of bass that mark out the record’s opening tracks. The industrial techno theme is continued too with a massive wedge of robotic treated vocals snaking out across the song. There’s a harking back to the more electronic moments of Music and American Life, everything pumping with the air of Madonna as superior, as the pinnacle of her contemporaries. As with Orbit’s Ray Of Light era productions, the track thrives on a sense of experimentalism that still remains effortlessly commercial at the same time.
Ironically, Superstar isn’t one of the William Orbit tracks, but it sure sounds like one. It’s the album’s ‘rock’ track and stands as another prime single candidate. The melody is sublime, the kind of thing long-time Madonna fans have been waiting years for, and released here, it’s like a cleansing burst of pure radiance. Even the slightly shoe-horned in dubstep section can’t detract from the song, it’s that good.
I Don’t Give A
Here, the industrial influences meet hip-hop beats amongst a grinding cacophony of sound and borderline raps from Madonna (though thankfully it never reaches the silly, pretentious levels of the ill-fated American Life single). "I’m gonna live fast, and I’m gonna live life," she claims, with a sort of wry simplicity, as if that’s all there is to it. It’s probably one of the album’s weaker tracks, stemming chiefly from the fact that – as Hard Candy proved – Madonna just can’t do ‘urban’ (Bedtime Stories excepted). Nicki Minaj pops up again and then the track descends into a weird cod-orchestral outro. It’s regality defined, and Nicki eagerly clamours to hold up Madonna as such: "There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna, bitch."
I’m A Sinner
That trademark psychedelic William Orbit sound is out in force here, with crunchy guitar riffs once again suggesting the Ray of Light era. There’s some lovely tinkling, celestially imbued synth bits and tribal sounds going on too. At times, it all feels a bit like Madonna’s about to don her Earth Mother makeover, and by any measure, this is definitely the album’s most religious track as she reels off names of saints.
The opening moments sound akin to the country n’ beats combo of Music’s Don’t Tell Me and while Love Spent takes some time to get going, it’s worth the wait. In the final choruses, everything all comes in at once, backed up by thunderclap beats – as far as firmly defined ‘album tracks’ go, this is a pretty good effort, even if it feels a little by-the-numbers at times.
Yes, it might be a Madonna ballad of a certain esteemed ‘class’, and yes, it might be on the W.E. soundtrack, but that’s probably where it should have stayed. After the hi-energy pace of the rest of the album, Masterpiece feels out of place.
Compared to Masterpiece, Falling Free makes a far better stab at positioning itself as a ballad that fits into the wider context of MDNA. Echoey piano lines and string sections set up a lovely trippy vibe that shares more than a little in common with the likes of Drowned World/Substitute for Love. Falling Free sounds properly sumptuous; there’s a richness to its production that serves to close the album down as a real assertion of Madonna ‘the artist’. Her vocals here are excellent, both moving and tender in a way that genuinely touches at the heart. Like scented rose petals and jasmine cast loose on water, Falling Free has a rippling beauty to it that is utterly enchanting.
The first of the bonus tracks, and of all the Martin Solveig-produced songs on MDNA, this sounds most stereotypically of his ‘style’. As is often the wont with bonus tracks, Beautiful Killer is pretty disposable, a bog standard clubland floorfiller – but the middle-eight is rather good.
I Fucked Up
A slow grind of swirly synths and guitar that feels restrained from ever becoming properly great because of that really quite cringeworthy title. It’s just one step too far on the crudeness barometer. But as with Beautiful Killer, the pace ups in the closing moments and the song improves with impressive agility. There’s also a neat reference to Sorry as Madonna recycles her "Je suis désolée" line.
Featuring M.I.A., B-Day Song feels like the obvious counterpoint to Give Me All Your Luvin, with M.I.A. feeling far more at home here than she does on the album-proper. It’s bratty with a Material Girl punkiness to it but the chorus hook is predominantly more annoying than catchy, with only the choppy guitar riffs helping salvage affairs.
Another wary dip into a more urban soundbase, there’s some cute blippy GameBoy-style synths to play with here, but for the most part Best Friend sounds like an unfinished demo or drum machine exercise. There’s a bare boned minimalism to the track that, as with Beautiful Killer, sets it very much out as ‘just’ a bonus track.
In summary, whereas Hard Candy felt like it was grasping at fading trends, MDNA is far more Madonna just being Madonna. And that usually turns out best for everyone involved.