[Music] Madonna – Rebel Heart (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

Review: Despite exploiting both the public’s desire and distaste for sexual provocation throughout a career spanning more than thirty years, Madonna’s thirteenth studio album Rebel Heart sees the Queen of Pop release a song entitled “S.E.X” for the very first time. One of the most potent examples of Madonna’s flair for media manipulation would involve her using titillation and its inherent shock value as a means of establishing discourses on power, control, and AIDS anxiety on 1992’s Erotica. With song titles such as “Deeper and Deeper”, “Why’s It So Hard” and “Bad Girl” winking at you from its tracklisting, the album may as well have been sold with a pack of pearls for listeners unwilling to explore its thematic depths to clutch. “Deeper and Deeper” almost drowns in own its doe-eyed reverence for love, “Why’s It So Hard” is a plea for world peace, and “Bad Girl” wraps up its exploration of destructive vices in a poultice of self-loathing.

“S.E.X.”, meanwhile, is about sex.

Couple this transparency with the presence of even more references to the singer’s discography than 2012’s MDNA, and there’s a certainly case to made for Rebel Heart finding Madonna in an uncharacteristically unimaginative state of mind. Although the Super Deluxe Edition’s twenty-five tracks may once again present the listener with an array of musical swatches to choose from, at least the record’s evident influences are just a little more time-honoured than those of 2006’s Hard Candy – a relic of Timbaland’s mid-noughties chart ubiquity – and the tuneless EDM of MDNA.

The glassy deep house of lead single “Living For Love” is a triumph, marrying Madonna hallmarks – gospel influences, self-empowering lyrics – to Diplo’s oh-so-current but disciplined production. “Devil Pray” never fully cashes in on the country-dance credentials presented in disillusioned verses in which Madonna appeals to a higher power for salvation, instead luring its chorus away from the barn dance and into a demonic orgy turned rave.

There are moments in which Rebel Heart feels genuinely fresh; Diplo and PC Music’s SOPHIE buff the plastic arrogance of the Nicki Minaj-featuring “Bitch I’m Madonna” with a decidedly cartoonish and auto-tuned sheen, rounding it off with confrontational blasts of what sounds like a dog being unnerved by a frantically pulled zip. “Iconic” could become Madonna’s very own “Eye Of the Tiger”, with a mouthy prologue from Mike Tyson fizzing into cascades of quasi-industrial beats, a victory lap of a chorus (“I can! / Icon! / Two letters apart”) and an appearance from Chance The Rapper. Producer Kanye West is in Yeezus mode on “Illuminati”, propping up Madonna’s intentionally dead-eyed anti-conspiratorial raps (“It’s not Isis or the Phoenix, The Pyramids of Egypt; Don’t make it into something sordid”) with heavy, sluggishly churning synths.

Critics will be quick to note the divide between these edgier cuts and the record’s more heartfelt and traditionally structured offerings. “Ghosttown”, the piano-led “HeartBreakCity”, and the largely acoustic “Joan of Arc” are easily Madonna’s finest ballads in a decade, but there are instances of the dualities implied by the record’s title intersecting. On “Body Shop”, her floaty voice woos a lover over a gossamer-light folk arrangement with a series of car-related puns, but when you hear Madonna sing “jumpstart my heart”, there is something sweet to take from them not all being exclusively sexual. On “Inside Out”, a slightly gigglesome topline of “Let me love from the inside out” doubles as both as a sexual solicitation and an unconditional acceptance of a lover’s flaws.

There’s little resembling an encompassing musical thread to Rebel Heart. Uptempo’s are something of a rarity, with many of the club-orientated tracks pacing themselves to deliver more fleshed out choruses. The self-referencing gets occasionally tiresome on “Holy Water” and “Veni Vidi Vici”; the first a deliriously camp (“Bitch, get off my pole!”) endorsement of female ejaculation with an unnecessary interpolation of “Vogue”, the second a wistful retrospective of Madonna’s life and career with lyrics made up of shout outs to her biggest hits: “I expressed myself, came like a virgin down the aisle / Exposed my naked ass, and I did it with a smile.”

So that brings us back to “S.E.X”. After so many years in the game, Madonna has probably earned the right to serve up such dimly derivative material if she should so wish. But Rebel Heart also embraces all of her strengths as an artist, from theatrical balladry (“Messiah”) to cocksure dancefloor fillers (“Unapologetic Bitch”) to exercises in sensual R&B (the bhangra-infused “Best Night”). At 56, Madonna is carving out a cultural space for older women in the music industry and beyond to further explore their sexuality and creativity. The fruits of her efforts will obviously take a few years to quantify and appreciate, but the adventurous streak running throughout much of her latest record shows why Madonna will always be a rebel at heart.

8.5 / 10

[Music] Madonna – Living For Love (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

Review: Having lived my life knowing that the chances of someone walking into an unlocked W.C. to find me startled and in a compromising position on at least one occasion are rather high, I realise that the closest one can come to controlling that situation is by making time for regular grooming. I say this because even if the absolute worst should happen, and you are caught with your trousers down, at least you can some pride in what you have been forced to present to the world. Madonna suffered a similarly gross invasion of privacy last November when an embarrassment of demos from her upcoming album Rebel Heart leaked online. But apart from any potential loss of sales, there was no real call for anger or mortification. The majority of the leaks demonstrated a welcome spike in ambition and musicality since the dark days of 2012’s MDNA, a largely anaemic afterthought to her Super Bowl Halftime show and the admittedly brilliant tour of the same name.

Living For Love” is Rebel Heart’s first single, and a quick comparison between it and Madonna’s previous comeback track “Give Me All Your Luvin’” is enough to sling the first stitch into hearts left broken after the reductiveness of her last release. It may use parts integral to such other 90’s dance throwbacks as Kiesza’s “Hideaway” and Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be”, but with Madonna – along with producer Diplo, her latest co-conspirator – behind the wheel, “Living For Love” is one of the more darkly intoxicating rides that the genre’s recent chart revival has yielded. The track bubbles into life with Diplo’s glassy synths underscoring dramatic house piano and Madonna’s quietly victorious verses. Her post-divorce albums Hard Candy and MDNA attempted to resolve the singer’s much-publicised break-ups from Guy Richie, Jesus, Brahim et al but it is only on “Living For Love” that she seems to have discovered a state of genuine edification. “Picked up my crown, but it back on my head / I can forgive but I can never forget,” she sings, asserting herself personally and as the Queen of Pop all in one move. The chorus is backed by a gospel choir and is suitably enrapturing, although the crunchy breakdown that follows undermines Madonna’s importance with a gospel singer’s adlibs. But then you remember just who the person fronting the track is; this is Madonna, the woman who has done it all, seen it all and presumably felt it all. Here she is, at fifty-six, telling us that no only does she still believe in love, but she still believes in herself. It’s a powerful sentiment.

The video is assumedly an unofficial apology for the flashes of apathy she had demonstrated when funnelling her energies into gyms and a career in directing instead of producing a decent record. “Give Me…” had an irreverent faux-one-take promo with an remarkably expansive set and a vague Super Bowl theme that was brilliant almost in spite of Madonna, whose trademark air of superiority seemed unwarranted considering she could barely feign interest in the song she was lipping along to. The video for “Living For Love”, meanwhile, is comparatively claustrophobic; so visually rich is its red-filtered, choreography-heavy set-up in which Madonna the Matador takes on an army of muscled bulls-cum-dancers-cum-prey. It’s a refreshingly lean concept, with no clumsy product placement – perhaps a director’s cut will see her whip out her brand new Lumia to remind Lourdes to the plug out her hair straightener, we just don’t know – and a reliance on M’s charisma that ultimately proves rewarding as she gives a truly engaging performance, at one point quite literally taking those bulls for a ride. 

9.5/10