If Madonna were a corporation instead of calling all her own shots, then whichever VP was in charge of picking her singles would be in a serious woodshed right now.
Despite its Super Bowl ubiquity and star cameos, “Give Me All Your Luvin’” didn’t set her fan base on fire. But that was nothing compared to the unpopularity of “Girl Gone Wild,” which debuted outside of the Billboard 100 and, as of this writing, sits at No. 127 on the iTunes chart.
“Girl Gone Wild” may be the worst single she’s ever released — and maybe as bad as anything anyone else could or will release this year — but it’s no bellwether. Because who could have guessed from that ghastly teaser that “MDNA” would turn out to be Madonna's best album since the Material Matron was still in her 30s?
Granted, getting through the entire 17-track deluxe edition requires an imperviousness to joltingly vapid rhymes, and not just on numbers that take inspiration from Joe Francis. But if you can put on your lyric blinders, “MDNA” is mostly good, unpretentious, highly danceable fun that makes willful middle-aged regression seem like a perfectly sound idea.
Initial reports may have left you unclear whether it’s a disco record or a divorce album, so rest assured that it’s both, although not necessarily in equal measure. She saves the confessionals for the latter stretch of “"MDNA",” and even then puts a dance-floor thump on a couple of them, so the transition from “Lucky Star” updates to complaining about how Guy Ritchie took her money isn’t quite as jarring as it could be.
The divorce stuff does provide a vestige of Madonna’s “mature” middle period, which began with “Oh Father” in 1989 and ended when the “American Life” album bombed in 2003. But she doesn’t overdo the serious stuff here. Listening to her sing “Bang bang, shot you dead, shot my lover in the head… Die, bitch!,” you know you’re not hearing the same Madonna who was self-importantly covering “Imagine” in the early 2000s.
In spirit, if not genre, “MDMA” continues along the same lines as 2008’s “Hard Candy,” which unabashedly harked back to her earliest, most carefree early days. If that last album didn’t turn out to be the return to chart domination that was intended, it may have been because its combination of ‘80s synth fluff and ‘00s hip-hop didn’t quite gel, and because the literally sticky sexual innuendos seemed over-the-top. In contrast, the dirty stuff is way toned down here, and she’s paired herself with producers who do nothing if not make contemporary dance music feel effortless.
The list of songs that would have left a far more anticipatory taste in listeners’ mouths than the two already out there runs at least five potential singles deep, starting with the nearly sublime electro-pop of “I’m Addicted,” “Turn Up Your Radio,” “Superstar,” and “Some Girls,” a declaration of superiority that features the producer super-team of William Orbit (her primary electronic collaborator since “Ray of Light”) and Robyn’s brilliant aide de camp, Klas Ahlund.
The most winning number, “I’m a Sinner,” also co-produced by Orbit, sounds like a vintage Monkees number successfully transplanted to the cheery future shock of Eurodisco. Giving in to the infectiousness of this track also means giving in to more of Madonna’s habitual Catholic-baiting, which is a small price to pay for such pop perfection.
(Seriously, though, Madonna, we get it. You know the Act of Contrition just well enough to misquote it in the not-so-taboo-shattering opening of “Girl Gone Wild,” and you can think of three saints to invoke on top of Jesus and Mary in “Sinner.” Even Catholic League watchdog William Donahue is surely asleep at the switch at this point.)
On her last album, Madonna took time out from the froth to devote just one song to her presumably already-rocky relationship with her husband: “Incredible,” which included the line, “I’m missing my best friend.” This time around, she actually titles one song “Best Friend,” and as a statement of how presumably lonely it is at the top without Ritchie around, it’s unusually vulnerable. That goes double for “I Fucked Up,” which couldn’t be a more tender ballad, or commercial one, if not for one obviously risible element.
But other numbers are pointedly devoted to the idea that it’s her ex who effed up – and who deserves a painful death (if “Gang Bang” is also aimed at Ritchie, anyway). The Material Girl apparently wants us all to know that he was the real materialist in the family.
“Would you have married me if I were poor?” she asks her ex-BFF in “Love Spent.” “If I was your treasury, you’d have found time to treasure me…/Frankly if my name was Benjamin/We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in…/I want you to take me like you took your money.”
The more defiant “I Don’t Give A” has her doing a “Subterranean Homesick”-style fast blues talk that boasts about multi-tasking and self-realization: “You were so mad at me/Who’s got custody/Lawyers suck it up/Didn’t have a pre-nup…/Gotta sign a contract, gotta get my money back…/I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminished myself/And I swallowed my light.”
These are the money moments — literally and figuratively — as far as quotability. Better to bring out those pained, pointed couplets than the ones like “We’ve gotta have fun if that’s all that we do/Gotta shake off the system and break all the rules” that pepper the happier tunes.
At least Madonna doesn’t have the worst lines on the album; those come via Nicki Minaj’s raps on “Give Me All Your Luvin’” and “I Don’t Give A.” If there’s anything that you will come to dread on repeat listens, it is the sound of Minaj declaring “I’m Conan,” or “I ain’t a businesswoman, I’m a business, woman! And I’m known for giving bitches the business, woman!,” or “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna — bitch!”
On the other hand, the other M.I.A.-aided tune, “B-Day," is great fun, a simple exercise in Madonna doing garage-rock. That number (and certainly not the “Give Me All Your Luvin’” remix that tiredly drags LMFAO out as yet another celebrity endorser) is the best reason to pay a few extra bucks for the handful of extra tracks.