“I’m gonna be O.K./I don’t care what people say,” Madonna sings on her new album, “MDNA.” That may be the least necessary assurance in pop-music history.
For nearly 30 years it has been a fact of popular culture that Madonna perseveres, calculates, reconfigures, strives and endures. Her gift for writing catchy tunes that suit her unvirtuosic voice, matched to lyrics that often straddle the clichéd and the universal, has been strong enough to carry her through hits and flops, artistic moments and easy gimmicks. Four years after her last album, Madonna, at 53, remains superstar enough to have been handed this year’s Super Bowl halftime show. That high-tech, hollow performance started the promotional cycle for her latest release.
Now that thumping dance beats are all over Top 40 radio, Madonna’s timing is good for “MDNA” (Interscope), her 12th studio album. It’s a bipolar collection that pumps out effervescent electronic pop before making way for a contentious personal agenda. Along the way Madonna strikes some favorite poses: lapsing Roman Catholic, club hottie, woman in love and — especially — the wounded tough gal. The poses matter less than the panache she brings to them.
On her 2008 album, “Hard Candy,” Madonna worked with the hip-hop and R&B producers who dominated Top 40 at the time. But since then Lady Gaga arrived, out-Madonna-ing Madonna for the sheer rate of fashion churn and bringing the four-on-the-floor beat and electronic pulse of dance-pop to the Top 10, while other rock, pop and R&B acts also embraced four-on-the-floor.
“MDNA” doesn’t deign to grapple much with the competition. Occasionally it fights insecurity with self-advertising: placing Madonna’s name in the chorus of “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” which she performed at the Super Bowl (and one of the album’s weakest tracks), or enlisting Nicki Minaj in “I Don’t Give A” to declare that “there’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna.” But mostly it’s just Madonna resuming her longtime habit of collaborating with dance-pop producers.
Madonna shares nearly all of “MDNA” with three producers: the Italian electro expert Benny Benassi, the French pop-dance D.J. and producer Martin Solveig (whose tracks often have a glimmer of new-wave rock) and, in a welcome return, William Orbit, who was Madonna’s inventive partner on “Ray of Light.” Each of them worked on both shallow, effective club fodder — with blippy stereo-hopping synthesizers and generic titles like “Girl Gone Wild” and “Turn Up the Radio” — and songs that venture toward the personal. That very much includes the scars of Madonna’s 2008 divorce from Guy Ritchie, which cost her at least $76 million.
“MDNA” places most of the dance-club songs up front, mingled with the ominous “Gang Bang,” which mixes gunshots with its ticking electro-pop as Madonna boasts about murder. “I’m Addicted” (“to your love,” of course) has her singing “MDMA” — the abbreviation for the chemical in the club drug Ecstasy — as one rhythmic element amid Mr. Benassi’s zinging electronics. Madonna now works her good girl/bad girl contrasts as the shtick they have become; the buoyant “I’m a Sinner,” with a hint of “Material Girl” in its beat, proclaims “I’m a sinner/ I like it that way, Ah-whoo-hoo!”; then she switches to singing about saints, assigning them tasks as if they’re the kitchen staff.
The tone darkens after the dance tunes. “I’m gonna be O.K.” starts the chorus of “I Don’t Give A,” a surprisingly specific song about the life of a divorced multitasking superstar: “Lawyers suck it up/ Didn’t have a prenup/ Make a film, write a song/ Gotta get my stockings on.” Chorus to the contrary, she’s not exactly nonchalant; “I Don’t Give A,” produced with Mr. Solveig, works up to a Sturm-und-Drang passage for chorus and orchestra that echoes Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”
A collaboration with Mr. Orbit, “Love Spent,” starts with the unexpected — minor-key banjo picking — before it marches toward mournful accusations: “If I was your treasury/ You’d have found the time to treasure me.” (Despite the song’s bitterness, pop reigns; a recurring little synthesizer arpeggio refers back to Madonna’s huge 2005 hit “Hung Up.”)
On the whole “MDNA” stays less arty and more determinedly poppy than Madonna’s 2005 album “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” the last time she looked inward at length. It does turn away from clubland in a pair of tuneful collaborations with Mr. Orbit: “Masterpiece” — folk-pop with a mechanized beat, from the soundtrack to Madonna’s new feature film, “W.E.” — and the orchestral, drumless “Falling Free,” an enigmatic song about love and exaltation.
Among the four additional songs on the deluxe version of the album, Madonna admits to mistakes and second thoughts: “Your picture’s off my wall/ But I’m still waitin’ for your call,” she sings in “Best Friend.”
Still, don’t expect vulnerability. The lyrics insist there are no regrets, while nearly all the songs perk along to the unvarying, superhuman pulse of electronic dance music. Madonna’s voice is usually computer-precise and neatly inexpressive, with a few exceptions for petulance (as in “Gang Bang”). Her survival instinct is her pop instinct, the one that hones catchiness above all, and it gets her through “MDNA” with hook after hook. Yes, she’ll be O.K.
New York Times
Buy/Sell Madonna Tour Tickets at Viagogo