Last week Madonna's 12th studio effort dropped. Come 2013, it will be 30 years in the business for her. So where does this leave her?
The days of Madonna being the one who sets a trend that others follow has long gone. (Truly, Ray of Light was the last record she put out which pulled off that hat trick). Is that a bad thing? Not really - her new game is filtering her own dance and pop sensibilities through the flavors of the moment. Sometimes this works - sometimes not so much. The last 2 years or so have seen "rave" music go more mainstream - with pop acts lifting synth sounds from house music, trance thuds, and other bits and pieces of techno sounds. Madonna may not be leading the charge of trends anymore, but she is still savvy enough to see them happening and use them to her advantage.
MDNA opens with Madonna at her most self-referential - the spoken-word confessional opener bringing to mind her Like A Prayer era. "Girl Gone Wild" sets the tone for much of the album - lyrically in love with being a "bad girl" while battling the need and/or want to soften up. And soft is something this album rarely is - the very next track keeps the energy pulsing with the stomping revenge fantasy of "Gang Bang". Truly, it is as close a sequel to the angry "Thief of Hearts" from Erotica - that she will ever record. It drags on a bit and is a bit overlong with its spoken word minute-long ending - but catchy enough to overlook the length - mostly. Certainly a song that could be made fabulous with the right remix. A bit on the violent side maybe...whether that bothers you as a listener or not is somewhat subjective.
Debut single "Give me all your luvin'" sets up a cheerleader-techno-stomp that is catchy, but is far from the best song on the album. Nicki Minaj & MIA add ok-enough middle-of-the-song sass - not terribly distinctive, but not detracting from the song either. It's ok, but as with many an artist, the best song isn't the debut single - or ever released as a single at all. This is borne out further with the gently striding roll of "Superstar" which counters some of the revenge-fantasy snarl with some Madonna-in-full-swoon music (think "La Isla Bonita" for a similar feeling). "I Don't Give A" is another flavor on the snarly-revenge angle - but gets bogged down some with the almost-rapping delivery that brings to mind the cringe-inducing "soy latte / double shott-ay" tripe of the title track from "American Life".
Some of the best moments come in the slower ballads - of which there are only 2 (a handful more if you snag the deluxe edition). "Masterpiece" is a bit too thumpy still, but has Madonna in full classic-80's torch mode like she hasn't been in a long while (definitely never on the previous "Hard Candy"). "Falling Free" is one of the most lean tracks on the disc - all piano, violin and soft synths and no backbeat to speak of. Madonna does not have the most amazing set of pipes on the planet, but with the right song, she can sound amazing - and she certainly does here.
The deluxe edition adds a handful of extra tunes - some that sound like they ought to have been on the "regular" edition - but this is disc-by-disc quibbling. "Beautiful Killer" is a stomper that eerily calls to mind No Doubt "Don't Speak" - albeit filtered through the stutter-techno ethos this whole record is built upon. "I Fucked Up" is yet another counter to the snarling revenge mood - possibly off-putting title aside, it is one of the more contrite songs on the disc - and definitely good enough to have been somewhere other than the "bonus" disc. "Best Friend" and "B-Day Song" are just ok, and the Party Rock remix of "Gimme All Your Luvin'" is throwaway filler at best.
Overall, MDNA is a hit-and-miss affair. In that way it is similar to her previous (Hard Candy) in that there are some songs that make one think "If she followed this blueprint for the whole album, it could have been a front-to-back classic" but are dragged down by tracks that are ok, but not up to her usual standard. Final verdict: Worth it, with some reservations.