MDNA, the latest offering from Madonna, is a curious beast. The album was released worldwide at the end of March to mixed, though generally positive reviews. It has charted and sold as any other Madonna album does, amazingly well, topping Australian, US and UK charts in its first week and taking Madonna into yet another music record as the Most Number Ones by a solo artist, ever. Sorry, Elvis.
With a thirty year career of best selling albums, it might be tempting for an artist like Madonna to push a whole bunch of random stuff together and see what happens, see if they can get away with it. And that’s exactly what MDNA seems like. Madonna has never limited herself to a defined genre of pop music. MDNA is a showcase of this, moving from dance club anthem to silly pop ditty, from hip-hop to ballad and then into other, less easily defined things. Whether or not it works is another matter entirely.
MDNA is a grower. On initial spins it was hard to find a redeeming feature with the various moments of sheer silliness overbearing. A few more spins and MDNA‘s occasional yet remarkable strengths eventually shine through.
MDNA sees Madonna join forces again with producer, William Orbit. The pair collaborated on Madonna’s in all ways stunning Ray of Light (1998) album, and it was with great excitement that much of that same artistry was anticipated. Alas not. While Ray of Light was a also a diverse range of style and sounds, the variation flowed seamlessly into a whole album. On MDNA each track sits out on its own as an individual component. There is no cohesion to make a whole album, to make a particularly good album. While there is a unifying theme – violence, redemption, sin, forgiveness – stylistically it sounds muddles and confused. This may be a downfall of the artist, or more likely a symptom of the iTunes generation of single sold songs. Maybe both.
MDNA was released in two version, the single disc standard release and a double disc Deluxe edition. Given the choice, buy the Deluxe addition.
MDNA – Track by Track
Girl Gone Wild
The album opens with ‘Girl Gone Wild,’ a pounding electronic dance anthem that will work well in the clubs but isn’t really made for small room, careful listening. The song starts with a segment from the Act of Contrition, a Catholic prayer Madonna played with on her 1989 Like a Prayer album. This isn’t the first of MDNA‘s nods to 1980s music and Madonna’s own back catalogue, indeed the entire album is tinged with 1980s style synthesizer sounds. Even the album’s cover looks a lot like the Madonna of bygone eras, comparable even to the original cover of her first, self-titled 1982 album. The title, MDNA, a breakdown of Madonna, furthers this comparison. ‘Girls Gone Wild’ is also somewhat reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, in sentiment and lyrics “Girls they just wanna have some fun…”
This is dance music, meant solely for dancing and not careful critical attention. That said, even Madonna’s most pop driven, superficial dance tracks from previous albums have displayed a rich, multi-layered sophistication of sounds, rhythms and melodies that lacks on this track and is infrequently heard on the entire album.
MDNA finds its lowest and most inane point in track 2, ‘Gang Bang,’ unfortunate too as it’s also the longest track on the album. Singing about shooting someone, with allusions to drive bys and gang attacks, the violent lyrics “Bang Bang, Shot You Dead Shot My Lover In The Head” seem an obvious reference to Cher’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’, made famous by Nancy Sinatra. ’Gang Bang’ is a raw beat with sparse electronics and a low tone vocal that might have worked better with less silly lyrics. The song builds to a screaming Madonna - “Drive Bitch… And while you’re at it die bitch,” and we’re all left wondering what the point is and how such a track made it out of the studio.
‘I’m Addicted’ does remove some of the bad taste of ‘Gang Bang’ and for the first time on the album, Madonna approaches her usual standards of excellence. A lot more is going on in this track, with some very 1980s sounding synths and nice fades. This will also be a song to work well in a club, but also works for a small room listen. The track has attracted controversy, claiming it advocates drug use, especially with the MDNA play on the ecstasy drug MDMA. The claims were compounded recently with Madonna making a reference to “Molly,” a colloquial term for the party drug at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami. Madonna claims her reference was to a song called “Have You Seen Molly” and does not advocate drugs. While ‘I’m Addicted’ is about thrills of love, compared to drug highs and does not explicitly reference drug use, the line seems thin, and though justified, it seems her on-stage antics were rightly questioned.
Turn Up The Radio
‘Turn Up The Radio’ chimes in next as a sweet little pop thing, again with a strong 1980s vibe. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, and considering few of the targeted pop demographic would even have a radio now, it does seem intentional. It’s a light, breezy, fun and feel good track, but nothing really special and quite easily forgotten for most.
Give Me All Your Luvin
‘Give Me All Your Luvin” is the first big single, famously leaked from the album, and follows from ‘Turn Up The Radio’ in much the same light and feel good tone, though with a bit more stylistic depth and drive. With a lyric reference to ‘Lucky Star’ there’s no doubt that in feel and content this is another reference to Madonna of the early days, and indeed sounds like it may have been left over from a True Blue (1986) recording session.
‘Give Me All Your Luvin” is really fun and a finely constructed pop song, with a football and cheerleading motif that tied nicely (and probably not accidentally) with Madonna’s performance at the 2012 Superbowl, where she first performed the track. Major ear worms lurk here – you may find yourself randomly chanting “L-U-V-Madonna! Y-O-U-You-Wanna!”, or that may just be me. Guest vocals here from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A in hip-hop sections of the track do jar a little on the first few listens but the effect softens after a while. Personally, I would have preferred the song without them, but it does work well to bring this otherwise retro tune into the contemporary pop scene.
‘Some Girls’ shifts from pop back to the electronic dance music. While the theme is appreciated – girls are all different and should be celebrated as such- the song sounds like a computer game, grating and irritating with far too much distorted electronic beeping with too little variation. The chorus does have a little relief from this pounding reception, but it’s nowhere near enough.
Just as quickly as we left it, ‘Superstar’ takes us back into ditzy pop ditties. Madonna’s 15 year old daughter, Lourdes provided backup vocals for the song, barely distinguishable from her Ma’s singing. ‘Superstar’ is a ridiculous song with some of the most shameful lyrics ever warbled in pop music. “Ooh La La you’re my superstar, Ooh La La I love the way that you are…” chimes the chorus. And if that wasn’t bad enough – “You can have the password to my phone, I’ll give you a massage when you get home.” Seriously??!!
I Don’t Give A
‘I Don’t Give A’ opens strongly with a good driving beat and fuzzy guitar. Madonna comes in with a bizarre sounding rap rhythm that can’t help but be compared to a crimp. Madonna has always worked best when leaving the rap rhythms to her guest rappers, as appear later in the track. It kind of works and it’s not a bad song. The final moments are it’s most redeeming feature, with a curious orchestral and vocal section that sounds like it would be more familiar on a Michael Jackson release. Given a further exploration of that style, the song might have been a lot more interesting.
I’m A Sinner
‘I’m A Sinner’ has some dance elements but is more of a soft pop song and is really nothing special. The refrain “I’m a sinner and I like it that way,” perhaps a comment on Madonna’ own pubic attitude. There’s really nothing specifically wrong with the song until the ballad part at then end with Madonna’s listing of saints which just sounds weak. We move on without much reflection, as there’s really no substance here to reflect on.
‘Love Spent’ is an impressive and satisfying song. Its unusual – a bit dancy, a bit poppy but almost a ballad. The opening tumbles out with a banjo-esque picked string melody, moving into an even dance beat. Layers of sound maketh a good Madonna track, and this one has plenty. Her vocals move from the low range to high, reminding us that Madonna is an accomplished singer as well as everything else. Lyrically, it’s pure pop. While some overly sweet simplicities are expected, ‘Love Spent’ has none of the lameness of other MDNA tracks while still managing to hit a soft gooey center of sentimentality. Definitely a strong point of the whole album. There’s an acoustic mix available on iTunes I’m yet to listen to, but on the strength of the original, I look forward to it.
The Golden Globe winning track ‘Masterpiece’ is a mystery. Not having seen W.E, I can’t comment on how well the song works as part of a film soundtrack, but as a stand alone song, it’s a little soft. “If you were the Mona Lisa, you’d be hanging in the Louvre, everyone would come to see you, you’d be impossible to move…” – it’s not exactly poetry. The song is overall “nice” and gentle, though that continuous backbeat seems quite out of place. Reminiscent of something that may have come out during Madonna’s softening years in the late 1990s Evita era. It’s pleasant and easy listening, her vocals are impressive, but like a lot of MDNA, it’s good but nothing particularly special and we all know she can and has done better.
The album closes with ‘Falling Free’ another MDNA strong point. An eerie sounding, retro piano and strings moves in with Madonna’s vocals all coming in with an almost Kate Bush reminiscence. Some nice and rich vocal layering is happening with understated electronics adding a background layer. ‘Falling Free’ is another opportunity to remember what Madonna’s voice is capable of. Again, we’re in pop ballad territory so these lyrics aren’t poetry or much for the thinking listener. It’s a sweet song though, and reaches the right point of sentimentality without getting sickly.
Deluxe Edition Tracks
The second disc, available on the deluxe edition has four new tracks and a dance remix of ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’.' Some of the strongest tracks on MDNA are on this disc, ‘Beautiful Killer’ the clear winner for best MDNA track.
What you’d expect from a good Madonna song is happening in ‘Beautiful Killer’ Fantastic and varied beats in those multiple layers of rhythm I love so much. Her vocals stay low for the verse and move higher for the chorus creating a good dynamic flow. There’s nothing lyrically special here – more themes of killing, shooting and love not unlike ‘Gang Bang’ but without that ridiculousness. It’s unfathomable how this wasn’t on the main disc.
I Fucked Up
‘I Fucked Up’ is a break-up lament from the position of the person who made the mistakes, given the public appearance of her history it’s not hard to read Madonna’s personal life into this, but not necessary to enjoy the song. Ballad style vocals accompanied by an acoustic guitar and electronic drums and strings makes for a gentle pop song that contrast the strong language. The song builds to a faster tempo and with different lyrics this could sound like a feel good, summer tune. Instead it’s actually quite sad and comes across as sincere and heartfelt. Few other Madonna songs have featured such heavy language, not a complaint, just an observation. For those who can’t handle the naughty words, a “clean” version is available.
‘B-Day Song’ is, well, a song a about having birthday. It’s sparse, poppy and repetitive and sounds like it was written for if not by a bunch of teenage girls, and possibly made up on the spot. In its strength it does have the message of having a good time particularly without drugs or alcohol. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it – it’s fun, and I’m sure I’ll sing it at some point on my next birthday - it’s just hard to fit in with anything else on this or any other Madonna album.
‘Best Friend’ is another break-up song, far more electronic than ‘I Fucked Up.’ While the beats and electronics, as well as the vocal styles through the verse border on the annoyingly repetitive, the shifts and then difference to the chorus makes this an intriguingly good song. Again, lyrics are heartfelt and sentimental and quite touching and it’s difficult not to place Madonna’s personal life into the song.
Give Me All Your Luvin’ (Party Rock Remix)
There is absolutely no flow from ‘Best Friend’ to the “Party Rock Remix” of ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’.’ Featuring M.I.A and LMFAO, the song does what all other party remixes does – takes the original song and overlays it with dance anthem style electronics. What makes this expressly a “Party Rock” remix, I’m not sure. Like dance music, then this should please. Prefer pop then definitely stick to the original.
MDNA is a long way from Madonna’ finest moments, but there is still enough in there to remind the world why she is where she is, and why she is what she is. As an album, it’s disjointed and makes little sense. As a collection of singles, as most pop market albums now are, it’s a mixture of good and not so good tracks. When it hits, it lands surely and strongly. When it misses, it falls flat and floundering.
As a Madonna devotee though most of her career (and my life), it’s fascinating to watch an artist signal back to bygone eras of pop music through references to her own work, and Madonna’s really the only artist ever in a position to do such a thing.
Don’t think about MDNA too hard, and it should please with enough feel-good dance vibes. For an exhibition of the highs Madonna is truly capably of in the recording studio, see previous works.
* A couple of these clips have a slightly altered pitch from the album versions (for Youtube copyright reasons) and are used here for demo purposes only. For the full MDNA experience, be sure to check out the album originals.
Don’t forget to check out this new and exclusive essay on Madonna