The jury’s still out on whether the leak of demos for Madonna’s 13th studio album has helped or hindered its success. On one hand it forced a compromised, staggered release, rather than an explosive comeback; on the other hand, the leak – plus the Queen’s newfound love of Instagram – have stirred up a level of public interest that was absent for her past two album campaigns.
Opening with Living For Love – a banger created by the curious mix of Diplo, the London Community Gospel Choir and Alicia Keys – Madonna plays the role of the scorned lover rediscovering her inner strength, (“After the heartache, I’m gonna carry on”) a theme which persists throughout on songs like Unapologetic Bitch. You might be able to rejoice in being fierce and triumphant at some points, but there are few opportunities for a good joyous song and dance. There are a few too many mid-tempo ballads, like Hold Tight (not Ryan Tedder’s finest offering), Wash All Over Me and Messiah, the best of which are probably Ghosttown and the beautiful Joan of Arc – a fresh sounding pop guitar tune treading new territory for her, and which could carry serious currency as a single.
Her work with Avicii is presented best on Devil Pray, Heartbreak City and the title track, while Kanye West’s production makes a real moment of the Yeezus-esque Illuminati. Her anti-Vogue rap of suspected Illuminati members is probably the only time Rihanna and Queen Elizabeth will feature side by side. Other Kanye assisted-numbers like Holy Water and S.E.X. are (dare I say) a little reductive. S.E.X. is Nicki Minaj-worthy, but it should be beneath Madonna in 2015. Inviting a lover to taste her ‘heaven’s door’ on Holy Water, she settles on a hook that – despite distortion – is clearly claiming “Yeezus loves my pussy best”. That’ll be news to Kim.
Clearly more comfortable with looking back these days, on much of the album, the Queen of Pop is surprisingly self-referential; from the sample of Vogue on Holy Water and Justify My Love on Best Night, to the blast of Holiday chords on Veni Vidi Vici – a song which, like the title track, reflects on how she overcame adversity to achieve her destined fame. With songs like Iconic and Bitch I’m Madonna, she also revels in her own status and fame; her own ‘bow down bitches’ moment.
Everyone has their own opinion of what Madonna should do next, meaning inevitably not everyone will be content with this delivery. Regardless, it does sound like she is attempting to tick too many boxes . There are moments where she’s absolutely owning a strong, middle-of-the-road, ‘age appropriate’ style of music that could see her lauded by music critics and the general public; there are modern, relevant tracks like Living For Love that deserve mainstream radio play; and then there are moments where she drags the tone down with a song like S.E.X. –harking back to a dated need to shock that so easily allows her good work to be overlooked.
In a sense, there are probably about two or three very different albums struggling to get out of Rebel Heart. While all of the songs work in their own way, they’re not a convincing set. Plus, with 19 tracks (and that's not including the extra songs tacked on to the super-deluxe edition), one can’t help thinking this would be a stronger effort if half a dozen lesser tracks had been shaved off. It’s also disappointing – and confusing – that the anthemic title track is resigned to the final spot on the deluxe version. There is pure brilliance when its chorus kicks in and she cries “So I took the road less travelled by/And I barely made it out alive”, but I fear few will have the patience to stick around for it; not to mention that its position here doesn’t hold much promise of a single release for what is arguably one of her best pop songs since Hung Up.
Rebel Heart won’t be joining the ranks of Like A Prayer or Ray Of Light, but it’s fair to say that it’s superior to Hard Candy and MDNA. With a strong promotional campaign, and a few well-selected singles, 2015 could really be a year when the Queen shows her hard earned skill and reputation can still be put to use in a difficult modern landscape. After all: bitch, she’s Madonna.
This review also appears in the new Style issue of Attitude Magazine. The grand dame of drag herself, one Ms. RuPaul, appears on the cover of the Style Issue, which inside includes features on man-of-the-moment Jamie Dornan and a 10-page special on Madonna's musical comeback.
The Style issue is available to download to your mobile, iPad or tablet device now, at Pocketmags.com/Attitude.
The issue will be out in shops next Thursday (March 5) and you can also have it delivered directly to your door at newsstand.co.uk.