Album review: Madonna, MDNA

More weak material, than material girl on Maodnna's latest
More weak material, than material girl on Maodnna's latest
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Madonna’s got news for Lady Gaga: she wants her Queen of Pop crown back. Trouble is, she’s too stuck in her ways to take the necessary risks

SINCE the release of her previous album Hard Candy in 2008, Madonna’s 1980s superstar peers Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston have met inauspicious ends, while her status as the queen of pop has been sorely challenged by a brazen pretender who has aped her visual and, to a lesser extent, musical style, sweeping all before her in the process. So in returning to a market which has embraced a newer model of herself, it’s time for some cultural revision, some words of warning which she puts in the mouth of Nicki Minaj. “There’s only one queen – and that’s Madonna,” purrs the hip-hop starlet (while eyeing her throne, probably).

Did you get that, Gaga? Her Madgesty wants her crown back. Having snatched that vulgar Superbowl showcase from under your nose, Madonna is playing hardball on her 12th album, proving she can churn out a load of catchy but insubstantial dance pop filler as mindlessly as the next girl in the designer meat frock.

The strikingly titled MDNA demonstrates again her nose for a shrewd partnership, one which benefits Madonna in cred points and her collaborators in exposure. Her Ray Of Light saviour William Orbit is back on board, along with Euro house producers Martin Solveig and Marco Benassi. But this time, it’s also about the girls, with high-profile cameos from femme rapper du jour Minaj and DIY auteur MIA, who revels in her Madge-like capacity for troublemaking.

Admittedly, their inaugural effort Give Me All Your Luvin’ made a particularly poor showing in the hit parade – Madonna’s worst, in fact, since her debut single Everybody, back in 1982 when no one knew who the NY club queen was anyway. However, she’s probably not too broken up about that, given that monster pre-sales for MDNA have placed it at the top of the iTunes chart in 50 countries – commercial justification, I presume, for not just jacking it in and leaving Gaga to clean up unchallenged.

Yet, for an album which carries her name so assertively, MDNA plays it reasonably safe around the formulaic but functional live-for-the-moment dance pop vibe of Confessions On A Dancefloor and Hard Candy – fruitful territory for Madonna ever since her definitive Into The Groove – and comes frontloaded with some serious club cuts.

She also reprises her bad girl who tries ever-so-hard-honestly to be good schtick right from the off, with the teasing spoken word intro to throwaway new single Girl Gone Wild, which introduces the theme of quasi-contrition. Later, she has her cake and eats it on the insouciant I’m A Sinner – “I like it that way” she claims over a shimmering Ray Of Light backing before calling on Jesus, Mary and the saints for succour. At least it doesn’t sound like she’s trying too hard here, unlike the charmless electro throb of Gang Bang on which she aspires desperately to B-movie badass credentials, snarling “I’m going straight to hell and I’ve got a lot of friends there.”

She’s on safe ground with the dance pop of Turn Up The Radio and the empty-headed Superstar, in which she vacantly compares her beau to James Dean, Marlon Brando, Bruce Lee, John Travolta and, ahem, Caesar and Abraham Lincoln, declaring “you can have the keys to my car, I’ll play you a song on my guitar”. Better still, why not work a bit on those trite lyrics?

There are modest highlights peppered throughout the mix, such as the cool, hypnotic clarion call of Some Girls and the unexpected banjo intro of Love Spent which cuts through the processed beats. I Don’t Give A has been garnering a lot of attention for its explicit references to her divorce from Guy Ritchie but its bullish demand that “lawyers, suck it up, didn’t have a pre-nup” is hardly the stuff of self-revelation.

After all this clubby muscle-flexing, the closing ballads come as a refreshing tonic. Masterpiece is a little pallid but the tremulous Falling Free is close to Frozen par with its atmospheric, reverberating piano backing.

Interestingly, Madonna squirrels away her most genuine acts of contrition on the bonus disc. I F***ed Up is a sweet, sparely arranged rueful pop song which doesn’t fit with the defiant survivor image of the main album. Likewise, the brooding electro pop of Best Friend is prepared to display some vulnerability.

There’s also time for one final break from the safe haven of the dancefloor. B-Day Song, a hip, skippy cheerleader number with MIA’s DNA all over it, contrasts its innocent, girlish tune with some particularly naughty birthday wishes and packs a personality lacking elsewhere on the album. But what do we expect from pop royalty anyway? Innovation? Individuality? That’s not the way of the monarchy.

Rating: ***