Thirty years after her first single, Madonna has to jump hurdles just to stay in the game. Having completed her Warner Bros. contract, she needs to make her new business partners, Live Nation and Interscope Records, happy by motivating old fans to keep coming to her shows while at the same time winning the young audience that turns the wheels of social media. She must also remain relevant in a world where Lady Gaga has usurped her club queen/gay icon/Third-Wave feminist/cultural provocateur throne.
So it’s no surprise that MDNA hedges its bets, enlisting 25 co-writers and four production teams, and if it fails to match the sales numbers of 2008′s hip-hop-y Hard Candy, which generated chart-topping single “4 Minutes,” or 2005′s Confessions on a Dancefloor, which sold 10 million globally, its garish Eurodance grooves still position it firmly in the international mainstream of the moment. It sounds like a party — one that’s already selling tickets to her upcoming world tour.
But what’s often forgotten is that Madonna is also a serious artist driven to examine herself in public. It’s no surprise that the least convincing song on any Madonna album is the one in which she professes not to care what people think. On MDNA, it’s “I Don’t Give A,” a wordy and unflatteringly rigid track that rises above its banal account of a typical Madonna day only on its contrasting bridge, where her singsong jabber gives way to a well-articulated admission: “I tried to be a good girl, I tried to be your wife/ Diminished myself, and swallowed my light.” Suddenly the relative mediocrity of Confessions and Candy makes sense: In making herself Guy Ritchie-friendly, Madonna de-Madonna-fied herself. She muted her essence, and paid the price in her marriage, art and cultural impact. Her goof let Gaga in.
Like most chart-conscious discs, MDNA front-loads its singles: The substandard pop of “Girl Gone Wild” and the brutal but empty “Gang Bang” suggest that Madonna’s heart is more invested in the more personal — and musically substantial — tracks that occupy the album’s final third. All of them are co-produced, and mostly co-written, by William Orbit, the U.K. electronics whiz who helmed Madonna’s mature milestone, 1998′s Ray of Light. Swinging on a ’60s-R&B chord progression, a litany of saints and her underused but effective upper register, “I’m a Sinner” is classic, capricious stuff from this quintessentially conflicted Catholic girl. Co-composed by longtime Morrissey collaborator Alain Whyte, “Love Spent” extends a deft love/money metaphor through an effusive arrangement that mutates from countrified to symphonic to techno-heavy and pounding. Her stately but pained Golden Globe-winning “Masterpiece” and the standard edition’s concluding and similarly string-laden cut, “Falling Free,” return her to the classic balladry of “Take a Bow” and “Live to Tell,” reminding us that when she puts her mind to it, Madonna sings indelible melodies.
The twist here is that for the first time she’s made the deluxe edition of her album the essential purchase. “I Fucked Up” gets utterly frank about the mistakes of her marriage; like many fiercely independent souls, Madonna cowers behind a protective emotional shield when she most needs to open up. “Best Friend” delves further into her lingering feelings for her ex-husband: “Every man who walks through that door will be compared to you forevermore,” she grieves. It could be Ritchie she’s threatening to kill in “Gang Bang,” but it’s more likely that what she most wants to annihilate is the part of her that still loves him. Naturally, that’s the most compelling element of MDNA.