Madonna ruled the 80’s with an effort that looked effortless. The Immaculate Collection, along with New Order’s Substance and Pet Shop Boys’ Discography, came from the New York discoteques, and they’re all essential chapters of Pop’s New Testament.
Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th album, has been coming out for ages. A hacker infamously leaked it last year, but that’s less likely to hold Madonna back than a Giorgio Armani cape, and expectations were that this album couldn’t be as bad as the previous two. And indeed, Rebel Heart has at least two stone cold Madonna classics, which doubles the tally of MDNA and Hard Candy combined.
“Living For Love” cribs the gospel of “Like A Prayer”, but if anyone’s going to plagiarise Madonna’s past (cough – Lady Gaga – cough) it might as well be her. It features an authoritative vocal, underpinned by an updated 808 acid squelch and Alicia Keys pounding the piano, but one doubt she expected to perform the lyrics “let me fall down, now I’m going to carry on” quite so literally.
Rebel Heart starts so bloody well it’s basically the EP of her career, although there’s an immediate sticking point. The problem with “Devil Pray” isn’t the sultry tune, which flirts with Arabic chanting in the same way “La Isla Bonita” flirted with flamenco, but the lyrics. If you pretend she’s 18 it’s great, but she wouldn’t be where she was today if she followed half the song’s suggestions: “We can get stoned/And we can sniff glue/And we can do E/And we can drop acid”. Really? Didn’t we get this ‘down with the kids’ thing out of the system with the MDNA album?
Without wanting to detract from her own songwriting, Madonna has recently worked with so many people that it’s almost insulting to those she hasn’t. There are too many lazily dialed in collaborations from people she’s never met, and there’s even a song called “Illuminati”, which perfectly demonstrates why b-sides need to be re-introduced (there are 19 songs here, when there could be 12).
An album trying any harder would be a running machine. “Bitch, I’m Madonna” succeeds only in being worse than its title; only she could get away with it, because no one’s dared tell her it’s dreadful. It has the charm of a tourettes ringtone, with beats hammering away with the subtlety of a children’s entertainer. Underlining its aimless ambition is the unexpected vulnerability of “Joan of Arc”. It’s hard to believe she hasn’t already written a song called this. It exposes an unsettling chink in her armour (“I can’t be a superhero right now”), and cues the rest of an album that settles into a vibe not dissimilar to 1992’s underrated Erotica.
“Heartbreak City” encapsulates the beauty she is capable of, while “Ghost Town” is exactly the sort of song Madonna should be making: a slinky electro-ballad. It’s magnificent, and as the music falls away like melted glacier, her voice almost cracks in the fragile accapella: “when it falls down, I’ll be your fire when the lights go out”. It’s noble, contemporary and utterly affecting; another reason why pop music was invented.
As things progress, there are relapses into the clattering of five people shouting ideas at the same time, although not all its frenetic moments sound like malfunctioning music software. “Iconic” rattles away like a marching band (even if she does rhyme it with ‘ironic’), while “Holy Water” is alarmingly set in a strip club, and recycles “Vogue”’s “strike a pose”. Somehow it works, but it could equally be called “Thin Ice”. It marks the beginning of a Supermarket Sweep through her back catalogue, with “Best Night” retreading “Justify My Love”, while “Veni Vidi Vici” grabs previous song titles, only to be ruined by Nas’ rapping. Most disarming is “S.E.X.” (another title needing Google to confirm she hadn’t already used it), which sees porn categories set to minimal beats. It’s the sound of a woman keen to impart that she knows all there is to know about sex, and it might just be genius.
Her recent albums actually worsened with each listen. This gets better. The closing highlight is the acoustic echo of the title track, which sees her looking back on a career with the confusion of someone awaking from a dream, albeit one strung with countless hit singles and courted-controversy.
It’s certainly not the worst record of her career, but it is the most frustrating. Her roots are NY disco, not the EDM disco has become. This was mined to devastatingly brilliant effect with Confessions on a Dancefloor, but Rebel Heart is chaotic. It’s often amazing, and occasionally crap .If she deleted half of its tracks, it’d be the comeback record she was hoping for.