Madonna's MDNA: A First Listen
Sure, I heard bad things about MDNA, but when's the last time critics actually jumped for Madonna? In the pre-"poptimist" era of 1999, with Ray of Light, I'm pretty sure. Music was a billion times better, and the oft-cited failure American Life is actually pretty strange and fun (vocoder and rapping!). But MDNA's single was lukewarm, and roundly and rightly considered so. Time to see if I can give our star any luvin' at all.
"Girl Gone Wild"
Awesome. Maybe Lady Gaga inspired Madge to do spoken cheesy intros again, so she makes a quick confession, then we're off to the races. The dry clarity of this casually morphing disco beat is on par with Music, her last great album and a good sign. Yet it's extremely spare and calm as well -- at least for a lead track from a very famous pop singer that begins with a faux church confession. Instantly catchy, even for her. Good start.
"Gang bang, shot you dead/ Got my lover in the head," goes this loop. This is one of her sparsest tracks ever -- think Violator-era Depeche Mode and Madonna just intoning in a whisper over it. Did you guess it was a revenge fantasy? Pitchfork specifies it as a twist on her ex-husband Guy Ritchie's formula, but they must find that guy pretty barren because there's not a lot to go on lyrically.
All right, so sparseness is the name of the game. The music on these songs is remarkably dry -- and, I suppose, a bit rudimentary. This one's fun though. The synth keeps evolving toward a glassier, more abrasive pitch, and the hostess alternates between hooking and texturing. "I'm addicted to your love" isn't the deepest lyric she's ever written, but if the title MDNA is any indication, she's paying tribute to rave music that's not exactly Laurie Anderson. And succeeding. It's a bit long though. And is that the talking synth from No Doubt's "Just a Girl" that shows up?
"Turn Up the Radio"
The first real "song" here that's not just a vamp. Sounds kind of like Kim Wilde actually, if she had access to Ke$ha's beatmakers. It's remarkable how youthful Madonna's voice sounds, though she's made a wonderful career of not exactly having to stretch it far to achieve pop sui generis. My main problem with this album is that every song feels too long before it's even halfway over, which means a bit more songwriting could've been fleshed out. I mean, Music has some bridges, I'm pretty sure.
"Give Me all Your Luvin'"
This one sounds better than it did at the Super Bowl, but the cheerleading doesn't really work in such a sparse context. Are we aiming for pop excitement or pop minimalism? And Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. remain very awkwardly tacked on. Madonna is the "me" in the title, and I'm the one who's supposed to give her all my luvin', so who are these other people in between and where do they fit into this simple two-person exchange?
Finally, a sound that hasn't exactly been heard before. Madonna's version of an arch-accented LCD Soundsystem song, with ripped-velcro synth grinding every which way. Kind of acid-house-y but also the best melody thus far. "Some girls make a scene/ Crying in the limousine" is the first quotable lyric on the album really, including that confession opener. But maybe it's hitting its stride.
The chorus "Oooh la la/ You're my superstar/ Ooh la la/ Love the way that you are" sets a new standard for laziness -- both for this album and possibly for Madonna's whole career. This is one of her worst ever. A guitar-rock-disco song that's been filtered and phased to dogshit, so the music is nearly toneless. What does it even mean? That she's very famous but she's still the "biggest fan" of whoever she's currently luvin'? And among the uncreative things she'll do for "you," "You can have the password to my phone" is really gross, if any of those who thought Lana Del Rey's submissiveness was retrograde still care.
"I Don't Give A"
Nice Joan Jett-cum-Sum 41 rapping on beat, with relatively busy acid synths merging with equally boiled-over guitar. The album-as-a-microcosm I guess, but the hip-hop edition. Fun here, but fatally dry, like much of this record. I'd like to hear a Ke$ha remix and see if it's capable of exploding. And for extra-trendy confusion, Nicki Minaj's verse is introduced with an unmistakable dubstep wub-wub-wub.