[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

[Music] Top Tracks of 2014, Part Two (#15 – #1)

Part One:

#20 – #11 // #10 – #1

Part Two:

#30 – #16

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15. Beyoncé – ***Flawless [Remix feat. Nicki Minaj], Beyoncé (Platinum Edition)

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 Available to buy on iTunes

After two solid minutes of unfettered bravado, Beyoncé says she wants “everyone to feel like this”, which is a fairly petrifying request depending on how receptive you are to the brand of masturbatory ego-tripping she co-opts from a guesting Nicki Minaj for the remix of one of the sprightlier joints from her self-titled fifth album. Granted, the shameless arrogance they display is probably healthier than the self-effacing greeting card sentiments we as music listeners have grown accustomed to, but as we’ve come to expect from Minaj, for every moderately witty remark (“This watch here done phase blizzards”) there’s always a landslide of misogyny (“These bitches washed up, and ain’t no fuckin’ soap involved”) and birdbrained materialism just around the corner.

The power of the original “***Flawless” – in which cocky verses (“Bow down, bitches!”) and the song’s more universal “Flawless” hook bookended an excerpt from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech “We should all be feminists” – wasn’t  lost in the rendering of this redux, hence its place on our list, but neither was it capitalised upon. A remix featuring the world’s leading female rapper should have provided a chance to streamline the track’s messy structure into something easier to canonise as a dance-floor staple; Bey’s failure to do so is either emblematic of a lack of confidence in the original song’s commercial appeal, or an over-confidence in her imperial stature in the music industry.

See also: Drunk In Love” [feat. Jay Z], “7/11

14. Rixton – Me and My Broken Heart, Let the RoadRixton-Main

Available to buy on iTunes

The combined talents of British soap star and housewife heartthrob Shane Richie and singer Colleen Nolan can be seen manifested within their cherub-faced son, Rixton frontman (or should that be frontboy?) Jake Roche. The electropop-rock charm of breakout single “Me and My Broken Heart” is indebted to Rob Thomas’ 2005 hit “Lonely No More”, with producers Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Katy Perry) and Steve Mac (One Direction) adding just a pinch of lilting Fisher Price ska to the verses for flavour, and Roche emoting like a young Adam Levine whose been miraculously shorn of all shrillness.

And despite primarily being a plea for a one night stand,“Me and My Broken Heart” is still a whole lot more subtle than songs of a similar ilk purveyed by their peers; there’s no “Tonight lets get some / and live while were young!”-sized clunkers to be found here.

See also:Wait On Me

13. Hozier – Jackie And Wilson, Hozier

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Available to buy on iTunes

It’s impossible to deny the funereal force of the Grammy-nominated “Take Me to Church”, and if there were an award for Song Most Suited to a Crucifixion (Cinematic or Otherwise) then we’re sure Hozier’s breakthrough would sweep it. But to define the reach of his talents by a single whose release and subsequent notoriety was well-timed with the continued religious emancipation of Hozier’s (née Andrew Hozier-Byrne) native Ireland – with a little help from a highly provocative music video depicting small-town homophobia – would be disrespectful to his talent, especially with a self-titled debut packed full of tuneful exercises in fervent indie rock to explore.

“Jackie and Wilson” works with a noticeably more colourful palette than the majority of its parent album, sauntering into existence with tight garage-rock swipes that graduate into a sky-high, love-struck chorus.

See also:Take Me to Church”, “Someone New

12. La Roux – Kiss and Not Tell, Trouble In Paradise

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Available to buy on iTunes

For Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid, the five-year gestation of their sophomore album yielded an almost filler-free collection of tracks drenched in new wave’s delicate, pleasure-seeking suavity, but apparently at the expense of their professional relationship. Langmaid abandoned the production in 2011, taking to Twitter this summer to denounce Jackson’s credibility by reducing their collaborations to an artist-muse scenario:

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This implicit bitterness looms large over Trouble In Paradise, with even the curling synth lines of second single “Kiss and Not Tell” buckling under the pressure. But with Jackson’s once chrome-plated falsetto now tamed into a smooth purr, the conscious-battling discourse on infidelity is given a cheeky lift that her altogether colder work on 2009’s hit-filled La Roux could only dream of. Spread the word.

See also: Uptight Downtown”, “Let Me Down Gently”, “Silent Partner

11. Iggy Azalea / Charli XCX – Fancy, The New Classic 

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Available to buy on iTunes

From its first few bars of gummed synth, “Fancy” is instantly recognisable as the song that ruled the summer of 2014. As far as we’re concerned, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s adopted Southern American accent is more of a tribute to a culture she grew up admiring than an offensive parody, but the upheaval that continues in the wake of her success makes us all the more grateful for the distraction that Charli XCX’s earworm of a topline provides to this very day.

See also:Iggy Szn”, “Beg For It” [feat. MØ], “Work

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[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#20 – #6)


20. Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball, Bangerz

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No chorus this year described an artist’s arrival into the pop arena better than “Wrecking Ball”. The reinvention of the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana was one of the most blatant stab-in-the-dark attempts at relevance in recent memory, but when you consider how Disney stars of a similar pedigree have fallen to the wayside over the years, you can admire Cyrus’ smash-and-grab approach. And as tiresome as her schtick could be, this gutsy, Fleetwood Mac-esque ballad offered the twenty-one year old some redemption. The main concern when it comes to ballads in the 2010’s is that they be appropriated and rendered anonymous by the singing competition circuit, so kudos to Cyrus for providing a raw, impassioned, twerk-free performance that should by right go down as her greatest achievement to date.

19. Jon Hopkins – Open Eye Signal, Immunity

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Jon Hopkins’ astonishing collection of muscled dancefloor odysseys was one of the most acclaimed albums of 2013. Gone are the soft ambient flavours of his early work; the weighty anthems of “Immunity” crack and fizz at an often hypnotic pace, lulling the listener into a state of astral projection. Standout track “Open Eye Signal” repurposes the dancefloor as a battlefield. Razor-sharp synths gurgle and race over a 4/4 beat, with occasional detours to the cosmos, and – at its finest moments – Heaven itself.

18. Sasha Keable – Careless Over You, Black Book Mixtape

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With production from All About She – who, between their dark electro-banger “Bullet” and Top 20 hit “Higher (Free)”, have been demonstrating their range for some time now – this magnetic mid-tempo chimes along as Keable’s vocal flits from smoky to breathless. The production is dense but never overpowers – ceasing almost entirely in time for an interpolation of Rudimental’s melodramatic hit “Waiting All Night”. It’s an inclusion that could have gone either way, but Keable manages to convey all of the heartbreak without any of the histrionics.

17. The 1975 – Chocolate, The 1975

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In 2012, Madonna included a song called “Masterpiece” on her twelfth studio album. The track is pleasant enough on its own terms, but considering the a) the stature of the artist in question and b) the portentousness of its title, the listener expects – nay, deserves – more, and as a result we’ve come to regard this track with disdain. Any track named “Chocolate” runs into a similar problem. How does one commit the many sensory pleasures associated with said food item to an aural experience? Kylie Minogue mapped out a sexy little number based on the stuff, and while we know The 1975 aren’t averse to the subject , their hit single is instead a colourful tribute to the joys of smoking marijuana. Frontman Matthew Healy may have the worst rock star name in recent memory, but his nasally squall is refreshing for its blunt emoting and bold lack of pretension.

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[Music] My top 10 tracks of 2012

My attempts to review the musical identities of years gone by have had an annoying habit of collapsing in on themselves. I like to attribute this to the fact that my choice of poison is music of a popular nature. Yes, you read that correctly – I, Robert Gould, am a loud, proud pop music fan. In fact, my only real problem with pop music is how broad the term is. In one way I feel blessed to have so many classic records to work my way through, but I’m still in the early stages of it all. As a result I’ve ended up spending so much time digesting the complete works of, say, Madonna that the a lot of the output of 2012 has gone straight over my head. Now I know some sassy people out there will say this a good thing, but when I started to work my through all the Best of 2012 lists by Popjustice, NME et al I thought that maybe it wasn’t such a bad year after all. I can only hope one of my loyal spambots has a similar epiphany upon reading through my own compilation of the dizzying musical heights reached over the last 12 months…

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