Album reviews and capsules by Nathan Phillips, whose personal blog is here and who writes about movies here. Click here for an index to our first 700 posts. Contact me at poisonmail at aol dot com if you're upset or lonesome.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Madonna: MDNA (2012)
My emotional investment in Madonna's career is such that I can't really put together a normal and coherent review of this. Instead, in the inimitable but highly readable style of Sampo, my notes on MDNA:
The title was M.I.A.'s idea and seems like either an ill-advised bid for relevance or an awful pun, though it could make genetics students happy I guess. I also object to the cover of the regular edition which is her blandest since the putrid American Life and appears to me to be a reactionary move against the ageist ranting and raving about the cover art of her last two records -- which were ugly, honestly, but not because she was in sexy-mode on them. Not that I'm saying Madonna should feel obligated to slap some risque provocation upon every release, not least because the "Girl Gone Wild" single cover is pretty dull too -- just that I prefer something that doesn't look like an issue of Fast Company. And I just don't like the idea of giving a bone to the types who think Madonna's somehow wrong to explore her sexuality into her fifties.
Like so many other current pop records, this suffers from its broad mishmash of producers, which render the final product uneven and jarring. This was clearly Madonna's decision and I have to believe this is to some extent, like so much else about MDNA, a reactionary move, resulting from the criticism leveled everywhere (these quarters included) at the trend-following production by the Neptunes over most of Hard Candy.
On the whole: her voice, improbably, continues to improve and the album features some of her best singing. But so did American Life.
In contrast to the bleak outlook of Hard Candy which essentially cast a longtime innovator as a behind-the-times explorer of trendy aesthetic dance-pop and Hot 97 values, MDNA returns Madonna to the top tier of mainstream club music and pop radio, in form if not content. To borrow a somewhat ageist turn of phrase, it's the record of a "young" artist -- though we think of it that way strictly because Madonna is redefining what it means to be an aging pop musician, which for someone of her stature and gender is really uncharted territory.
Unfortunately, the record's steeped in a flavor of pop that isn't particularly suited to her. The opener and second single "Girl Gone Wild" goes down easy enough but is really just "Hung Up" without its retro persuasions. She blends in shockingly well with a certain class of modern club music but that's just it -- she blends in! This effect isn't too different from Hard Candy, genre aside.
The Benassi brothers contribute that cut and the sillier "I'm Addicted," which features the rather intrusive M-D-M-A chorus, but these songs do both sound perfectly seamless with Top 40 at the moment even if they don't exactly stretch any conception about Madonna or any definition of pop music -- but has she really done that in the last twelve years anyway?
The first dud is "Turn Up the Radio," which retains a '90s arena-club sound but is run aground by subpar songwriting -- this isn't anything unique, though; think of it as Madonna Filler Type A, the decent beat and poor hook that usually clutters up most of her albums at least once. I'm honestly more bugged by "Superstar," which seems to me the worst song here and I don't think just because its chorus is one of the dumbest things she's ever sung (oddly calling to mind the song the little girl sings in I'll Do Anything) -- it's the generic hook and the vocal mixing that crush it. Madonna's voice shouldn't be out in front so much on a song like this.
The two "credibility songs" wear better than the last album's dreadful "4 Minutes." M.I.A. doesn't really do much here, but Nicki Minaj proves an enjoyable match for Madonna -- "Give Me All Your Luvin'" is derailed slightly by the horrendous cheerleading motif but is a decent single otherwise, blistering from idea to idea at breakneck speed. Better yet is the direct Minaj collaboration "I Don't Give A," bringing pleasant memories of "Human Nature" and an enjoyably unrestrained attitude.
But the central problem with MDNA is that about half of it is produced by William Orbit and though a couple of his selections are a bit of a bore ("I'm a Sinner" and the goofy W. soundtrack item "Masterpiece"), you can't help wishing he'd been involved in the entire record. That's a measure of how brilliant a job he does with Madonna's ruthless Nancy Sinatra-inspired dubstep "Gang Bang," undoubtedly her best song in about seven years. That cut and the deliciously barbed-retro throwback "Love Spent" could return Madonna to the status of premier dance musician if released as singles. It's the first time she's sounded several laps ahead of the curve in a good while.
I also enjoy Orbit's "Falling Free," which just about put me to sleep the first time but is on reflection the kind of Madonna ballad I've sort of missed; it could fit pretty seamlessly on Something to Remember, surely more so than the already overrated "Masterpiece."
The Orbit songs sear mostly, and there are some other bright spots, but overall: I don't know if Madonna has really succeeded in retaining the creative restlessness that would carry her through many more records like this. It's frustrating because she's well in control of her career, has made good decisions and hasn't exactly done anything wrong -- she's kept up with the rising producers who'd bring her often great ideas to fruition and has done a fine job of keeping her place in the pop music scene. But the level of songwriting she was exhibiting up to about 2005 seems to continue the dry spell it showed on Hard Candy. I happened to hear "Physical Attraction" in the middle of reviewing this and the difference is dramatic -- her voice was so much thinner then, and less expressive really, and at its best the production on MDNA is arguably just as strong and intelligent as the work on those earliest classics -- but the song is so incomparable to anything here in terms of its immediacy, depth, and appeal. Only "Gang Bang" and perhaps "Love Spent" can even approach the joyous thrill of something like "Physical Attraction."
But goddammit, she isn't less good simply because she's older. She's trying harder than almost anyone and in many ways she's succeeding. And not that it's relevant to this review, but her being fifty-two also doesn't make her "ugly" or gross and doesn't disallow her from expressing herself sexually. It's wonderful that she's unafraid to do so, and fuck anyone who objects to it.
(Relevant to that and to the prior review posted here, incidentally: if Madonna or anyone else seeks validation for a pure-sex album that in fact celebrates aging, the most recent B-52's LP, Funplex, is a flawed but largely successful example of just that. It's much stronger in this regard than any of Prince's recent work, for instance, to cite a just as important artist who's done a far poorer job than Madonna of keeping market share and relevance.)
It's really a pity that MDNA, despite its #1 entrance on its first week, has sold so poorly. Even though I can't really promote it, it does my heart badly to imagine a world in which a new Madonna record is no longer an event -- that's been true for my whole life. What's heartbreaking is that unless there's a very quick turnaround time on the next LP, which I doubt given the large-scale promotional effort being planned for this one, I can't honestly say I'll be terribly excited for the next one either.
Again, it's not something I think she can help unless she comes up with more songs with the honest-to-goodness inexhaustible appeal she was displaying not so long ago, because she's technically better than ever. Her last genuinely successful and innovative recording was Music from 2000; since then, her best work has been the unabashedly backward-looking Confessions on a Dance Floor, an excellent album that kept some layer of modern mass appeal while exploring fervently the roots of Madonna's career. This gives me one small bit of hope: can we finally, finally have that Pet Shop Boys collaboration? These are the two longest-running dance artists who've remained relevant, and arguably the two best ever. They were supposed to help out on Hard Candy but Warner Bros. nixed it. Warner Bros. is out of the picture now; Neil and Chris would be thrilled to work with Madonna, I'm certain. It's about fucking time, I say.