“The lady protests too much on volatile 13th album”
You have to wait until the final track of Madonna’s 13th album, the grand, spiritual Wash All Over Me, to get a clear summary of its modus operandi: “There’s a contradiction and I’m stuck here in-between.” The title of Rebel Heart splits down the middle. On one side, Madonna has said there’s the “romantic” who still believes in love despite numerous setbacks; on the other, the “renegade” with a compulsive need to transgress and provoke. The spotlight darts between the two.
It’s neat conceit but an unnecessary one because we know Madonna can fold those contradictions into a single song. On signature hits such as Like A Virgin, Like A Prayer and Justify My Love, the headline-grabbing stuff stemmed naturally from relationships. Similarly, her brilliant 2005 album Confessions On A Dance Floor collapsed the distance between the club and the confession booth. By insisting on an artificial divide, Rebel Heart intensifies the polarisation that made 2012’s MDNA such a bumpy ride. Again, it’s the romantic who delivers the goods.
In recent interviews, Madonna has challenged the popular image of her as calculating and imperious – an image, let’s be honest, that she has done much to construct. Ever since she was a tenacious club-scene striver, Madonna has emphasized unstoppability and control. But Rebel Heart often strikes a more tentative note. “If this is the end then let it come / Let it flow, let it wash all over me,” she sings, ceding control for once. With similar finality, the wonderful post-apocalyptic ballad Ghosttown proposes, “This world has turned to dust / All We’ve got left is love.” On the album’s most beautiful song, Joan Of Arc, Madonna admits to being reduced to tears by the cruelty that comes with celebrity: “I can’t be your superhero right now / Even hearts made out of steel can break down.”
Vulnerability is Madonna’s underused secret weapon and it gives Rebel Heart compelling emotional urgency. Range, too. On Living For Love, a kind of gospel-EDM I Will Survive, the “not gonna stop” defiance had real pain behind it. The tense, vengeful break-up song HeartBreakCity is followed by the irresistible Body Shop, a sweet eccentric garageland romance, beautifully produced by DJ Dahi and Blood Diamonds. You feel as if you’re zooming in on a complicated human being rather than an enduring megabrand.
For all these reasons, when Rebel Heart is bad, it’s truly baffling. It’s almost worth opening an official inquiry into the decisions that led to B*tch I’m Madonna, where Diplo and Sophie’s ADHD production, Nicki Minaj’s say-nothing rap and Madonna’s naff, “I’m a bad bitch” declaration converge in a three-lane pile-up. Unapologetic bitch is cartoon dancehall jam. Holy Water’s thrillingly harsh Kanye beat is wasted on lyrics dums as, “Bitch, get off my pole.” Perhaps it’s down to genre mismatch. While house and disco liberate Madonna to be anything she wants, hip-hop boxes her into a persona that’s metallic, one-dimensional and, worse, boring.
Not all of the agressive tracks misfire – Illuminati has fun with the conspiracy theories attached to pop stars in the barmier corners of the internet; Iconic boshes together a Mike Tyson speech, a Chance The Rapper verse and a Nero-like dubstep drop – but the harder she rams home her point the less persuasive it is. In fact, paradoxically, the queen-bee declarations make her sound insecure. Madonna should not have to tell us she’s Madonna, nor what that means.
When you hit the bonus tracks, it’s worth skipping past the pointless (Veni Vidi Vici, on which Nas raps about Nas) and the joyless (S.E.X. is as blunt and flat as its title) to get to the movingly autobiographical title track, where Madonna reflects at length on her career, her motivation, and “all the things I did just to be seen”. It makes you wonder what she thinks she has to prove in 2015 with a song like Bitch I’m Madonna when she proved it all and we’ve been paying attention for years.
She sounds far more confidant and fully realized on the songs that favour uncertainty and fallibility, inviting the listener to lean in. After 33 years, the “renegade” does exactly what you’d expect. It’s when Madonna is opening her heart that she really rebels against expectations.
3 out of 5 stars