Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Madonna: Hard Candy (2008)

(Warner Bros.)

Innovators can't typically keep it up as long as Madonna has, so her slowdown in the last ten years is understandable. She still has yet to issue two bad albums in a row. Whether that remains true will be determined by the quality of her first release on the dubious Live Nation record label. For the moment, we're left with Hard Candy as her most recent statement. To those who feel comfortable being dismissive of Madonna, the record's a big joke -- its garish, ill-advised cover art; its hyperactively gimmicky, ultimately empty R&B; its half-assed vocals and half-baked songwriting. But for an actual fan of Madonna, for someone who holds her in genuinely high regard as an artist, the record feels disappointing but entirely forgivable. The complex relationship the star has established with her audience, the mainstream media-skepticism she once brilliantly spearheaded, perversely allows followers free reign in questioning her bizarre creative detours; when she's on the wrong track, it's instantly apparent.

Those disappointments are not strictly musical. Hard Candy isn't at all a bad album -- it's listenable, decent fun, and often infectious -- but it marks the indisputable point when Madonna copped to trend-following rather than -setting, a perhaps inevitable downturn she sidestepped with a couple of left-field projects in the middle of the decade, the regrettable kitsch American Life and the quite ingenious throwback Confessions on a Dance Floor. As of the dawn of the millennium, Madonna was still a leader, still in the trenches breaking ground; Ray of Light and Music were both unqualified successes setting the stage for the pop decade to follow, integrating their uncommercialisms into neatly digestable form, like most of her best records. Confessions might be a better record, but its effect on Madonna's progeny seems nonexistent. Thanks to its blatant pandering, Hard Candy will join it.

Madonna's meanderings in the commercial urban radio sound are more convincing than you'd expect, if only because she so consistently throws herself in the background in favor of performances by Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and Timbaland, who are all far better at this sort of thing but none of whom reserved any real inspiration for this project. There are decent moments here, like the snakelike bumper "She's Not Me," but for the most part, the songs are too long, their thrust too obvious, the cameos are too obnoxious, the feeling of an insufferable comback bid littered and weighted with unhelpful "collaborators" deathly. Even the big hit, "Four Minutes," might be Madonna's least interesting single ever; it sounds like a b-side from Timberlake or Timbaland that happens to feature Madonna, whose relevance audibly slips away during the course of the tune.

It isn't all that fair to complain that Madonna is experimenting with something that is essentially "new" for her; the problem is that as she grew, up to and including her prior album, she continued to keep enough of an ear to the ground for her music to continue to feel fresh and trailblazing, rather than simply aping the sound of radio which is -- by the time an LP's released, inevitably -- at least a year old. It's not an exaggeration to say she's the finest solo dance music artist we've ever had, and the finest period if not for Pet Shop Boys, who were tapped to work on this then kicked off the project days later at the label's request. One wishes the Boys' ideas had been heard. Despite settling into an identifiable sound, which Madonna has not, they continue to craft memorable, inventive, commercial disco twenty-five years after their first hit. PSB sensed Madonna's capacity for new sounds early on; in 1987, they attempted to lend her the song "Heart," which they recorded themselves after not hearing back. Relentlessly banging, emotionally intense, wittily ironic, and confoundingly sensual, it would've been a smash and a classic for her. It would be nice if that dream collaboration happened one day. Timbaland and Kanye West are brilliant performers, Timberlake is a very good one, but they don't give vent to anything here that actually sounds like it matters to Madonna.

A few days ago, I heard "Open Your Heart," Madonna's 1986 blockbuster from the True Blue album. Dating from her commercial peak, before her albums became more refined and textured affairs, and long before her voice developed the nuance it's shown since the mid-'90s, the song seems to explode to escape its time, its context, any set of speakers. The track itself is steamy, but Madonna belts her part out as though it's the last thing she'll live to do; through its innumerable layers of electronic haze, she pulls herself up to evoke utter empathy, pure emotion. It's a shameless direct blow to the senses, and it's awesomely powerful. Can we ever get that magnfiicently joyous, populist sophistication back? Perhaps when Madonna's operating from a new home and not simply riding out her recording contract, we'll find out. But frankly, I'd be happy with several more Confessions on a Dance Floors... provided we get more restrained packaging than this.

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