In an era characterised by catastrophic leaks and performance disasters more so than music, Madonna’s outstanding ‘Rebel Heart’ may end up her most underrated effort yet.
There’s no denying that discourse surrounding Madonna has changed dramatically in the last decade. Once seen as the living embodiment of all things pop culture, she’s now the subject of increasingly patronising and ill-informed think pieces questioning her relevancy in a genre she created. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that ‘Rebel Heart’ is a bold reaffirmation of Madonna’s supremacy – if there’s one thing the Material Girl likes to make more than a fuss, it’s a point.
The comment du jour about ‘Rebel Heart’ seems to be that it’s a far stronger attempt than 2012’s lacklustre ‘MDNA’ or even 2008’s criminally unappreciated ‘Hard Candy’, but as overwrought an observation as it may be, it’s an important one. Ultimately the failings of both ‘MDNA’ and ‘Hard Candy’ weren’t a result of their respective sonic directions, as is widely claimed, but actually from their lack of standout tracks. Both records worked fine as albums (perhaps ‘Hard Candy’ more so than ‘MDNA’) but failed to house memorable, instant Madonna classics.
This isn’t a problem ‘Rebel Heart’ faces.
The record opens with the still triumphant “Living for Love”. Although it failed to make the kind of chart impact Madonna and Interscope undoubtedly hoped for, it’s certainly one of Madonna’s best singles to date. With a distinctly current house beat, a ridiculously catchy chorus and an uplifting message, ‘Rebel Heart’s’ lead single instantly felt like the encore on one of Madonna’s record breaking world tours.
Equally, Avicii co-production “Devil Pray” has a very immediate impact – between the country infused acoustic guitar instrumentation and bonkers chorus lyrics (“We could sniff glue, we could drop E and we could do acid”) which are paired with a sinister, distorted post-chorus breakdown, this isn’t a song you’ll forget anytime soon.
Moreover, songs like Mike Tyson (still inexplicable) and Chance the Rapper featuring “Iconic” have such a vintage Madonna message that it’s almost impossible to imagine them sung by any of her peers. Self belief, relentless determination and joie de vivre are nothing new for Madge, but paired with Diplo’s production, they sound simultaneously fresh and nostalgic. Not an easy feat. Similarly, when Kanye West lends a production hand to the much buzzed about “Illuminati”, the track maintains it’s identity as a Madonna song thanks to her largely unacknowledged talent as a songwriter.
Indeed, a rare coalition between brilliant songwriting and fantastic production lies at the core of ‘Rebel Heart’ and contributes to the album’s inevitably victory. Madonna claimed earlier this year that her intent was to create songs that could be stripped of their production and still stand on the merits of the songwriting alone; songs, she claimed, that could be enjoyed just as much with only a guitar to back them.
On numbers like “Hold Tight” and “Inside Out”, this is certainly the case. “Hold Tight” boasts impressive production – the song rides the same kind of vibes as Coldplay’s “Princess of China” – but boils down to memorable lyrics (“We’re scarred and bruised but our hearts won’t die on us”) and a soaring melody; it’s ultimately much more than its production.
However all things considered, it’s not the tracks that transcend their production that number amongst the best on the album, it’s the tracks where the production matches the strength of the song that come out on top. The Eastern inspired “Body Shop” showcases the most forward thinking instrumental on ‘Rebel Heart’ but is also home to one of the catchiest tunes. Likewise, on “Best Night” an outstanding “Justify My Love” sample sits next to euphoric, sexually charged lyrics and a compelling sitar riff.
All of this isn’t to say that ‘Rebel Heart’ is a perfect record, but its faults lie in forgettable moments more so than weak tracks. Realistically, the deluxe edition of the album could do with being a good two or three tracks shorter – the Diplo produced, reggae flavored “Unapologetic Bitch” and break-up piano ballad “HeartBreakCity” epitomise this best. Whilst neither are bad songs by any stretch of the imagination, they get lost in the sea of pop magic that the more memorable moments on ‘Rebel Heart’ comprise. Unfortunately, rumored second single “Ghosttown” probably falls into this category too, which won’t help the album’s longterm sales.
All five deluxe songs earn their place and the nineteen track edition of the album is clearly intended to feel like the definitive version of ‘Rebel Heart’. The only super deluxe moment that really begs to be included in the main body of the record is ‘MDNA’ follow-up, “Addicted”. Despite being relegated to bonus material, it’s a standout on the album, due in part to its complicated sister in 2012’s “I’m Addicted”. Seemingly two parts of the same whole, “Addicted” offers a more realistic look at an obsessive, unhealthy relationship and is another damning nail in Guy Ritchie’s coffin. It also sports a catchy hook, some sharp lyricism and more than deserves a place on the standard or deluxe editions of the album.
Madonna revealed to Billboard magazine that before almost the entire record leaked in demo form last year, prompting a rush release of six tracks to iTunes in December, she had been planning to release ‘Rebel Heart’ as a double disc collection – one part Rebel, one part Heart. This tension is still extremely apparent on the album, and at times ‘Rebel Heart’ could have benefited from Madonna maintaining her original approach. There’s a sense that the fun in songs like “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which features another stellar feature from “Give Me All Your Luvin'” and “I Don’t Give A” collaborator Nicki Minaj, sits uncomfortably with the introspection of the stunning “Wash All Over Me”, which is Madonna’s best ballad since the ’90s. The self-assuredness and vulnerability aren’t happy bedfellows but nonetheless, the arguably contradictory nature of the record seems to reflect the arguably contradictory nature of Madonna herself.
Of course when you think about Madonna’s nature, you think about sex – the two ideas have been synonymous since Madge burst onto the VMA stage in a wedding dress back in 1984 – so it should come as no surprise that Madonna is not letting the press or the public dictate her sexual appetite based on her age. Of the two frankest sexual discussions on ‘Rebel Heart’, one is a runaway success. The other is, um, not.
“Holy Water,” co-produced by Kanye West and co-written by the endlessly underrated Natalia Kills, is an album highlight. With a clattering urban instrumental, funhouse sound effects, a “Vogue” sample and one of the most outrageous lyrics of M’s entire career (“Yeezus loves my pussy best” where “Yeezus” is purposefully distorted to sound like Jesus,) this is a track that has endlessly replay value. Its counterpart “S.E.X.” is dramatically less successful. Arguably the only truly inadequate track, this ode to intercourse crosses the line between outrageous and cringe-worthy, with clunky delivery of single-entendre lines like “I’m an open door, let you come inside of me.” In actual fact, if you can get past the horribly embarrassing lyrics, it’s a catchy track, but those lyrics give you a lot to get past.
Ultimately, if there is a competition between the rebel and the heart of this record, it’s the heart that wins. Madonna proves comprehensively with ‘Rebel Heart’ that she’s at her best when she’s reflective. The endlessly self-referential “Veni Vidi Vici” is one of the record’s undisputed highlights – a track that looks back over Madonna’s seemingly endless career with some laugh out loud lyrics (“When I struck a pose, all the gay boys lost their minds” – no lies detected) and some confrontational honesty (“They tried to criticize my every single move”).
And actually Madonna shines the brightest when the bravado of tracks like “Bitch I’m Madonna” and “Unapologetic Bitch” fades away and she’s at her most vulnerable. The painfully unguarded “Joan of Arc”, a musing on the struggle of notoriety which isn’t as self-indulgent as the subject matter suggests, is one of the most sympathetic moments of the Material Girl’s career. The heartbreaking “Messiah” operates in the same way – Madonna exposes her insecurities and relationship failings to her own musical advantage.
However, no track better emphasises the power of Madonna’s self-analysis than the titular “Rebel Heart.” A retrospective of her life rather than her career, “Rebel Heart” is a look at who Madonna really is – beyond the broken records, behind the reinventions and provocations, it’d seem Madonna is just as confused and fucked up as the rest of us. Sure the track would have benefited from Avicii’s original production, as heard in demo form last December, but that doesn’t negate its strengths. It’s a perfect uplifting track to close with and a reminder of Madonna’s layers.
Fundamentally, ‘Rebel Heart’ numbers amongst Madonna’s best. Learning from the oddly hollow ‘MDNA’ and ‘Hard Candy’, this is the most engaged the superstar has sounded since career highlight ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ and is an effective reminder that when she puts her mind to it, Madonna’s still got it. Between clever lyrics, catchy hooks, all-star collaborations and her most memorable material in ten years, ‘Rebel Heart’ is proof that when it comes to pop music, age is just a number.
Hit: “Living for Love,” “Devil Pray,” “Hold Tight,” “Holy Water,” “Veni Vidi Vici” and “Rebel Heart”
Miss: “Unapologetic Bitch” and “HeartBreakCity”