After a week of listening to Madonna’s MDNA it has cemented itself both in my brain and in the larger pantheon of Madonna LPs.
It’s not a dance album like Confessions on the Dance Floor, or a personal confession like American Life, but something just as rhythmic and confrontational as Madonna reaches her apex of electronics and outright rage. People who complain that it does not sound like Madonna may have never known what Madonna sounded like to begin with.
Now that I’m an MDNA expert in addition to a walking Madonna reference manual, here is my take on MDNA from bad to best. After much deliberation about including the Deluxe Edition songs, I decided in their favor. They’re only on a second disc because it makes physical production simpler, but they are all a part of the same work.
(If you’d like to calibrate your ratings to mine, for me 3/5 generally means I would allow a song onto my personal radio station.)
16. Gang Bang – .5/5 – Terrible
I don’t even know where to start. Five-and-a-half minutes of Madonna murmuring without consonants (like Bjork), sharing her revenge fantasies, huskily whispering, and saying “bitch” a lot has no place at track two of an album, especially when it ends with a fit of embarrassing misogynist screaming. The beats aren’t even good. Is it that any song whose writing credits read like the membership of a committee is destined to suck? Apparently if you buy the clean version of the album you don’t even have to hear this crap, which is almost worth it.
15. B-Day Song – 1.5/5 – Uneven
Really not so bad for a cutesy song potentially-improvised over what sounds like isolated elements of “Gimme All Your Luvin’.” Plus, we’re hearing a relatively clean Madonna vocal, save for reverb. I suspect this could have started as a demo for something else that turned silly over time with MIA in the studio. It might not be life-changing, but I’m still happy it’s on the LP. If it wasn’t for bonus tracks how would we ever get to hear this sort of silliness from Madonna except on tour?
14. Superstar – 2/5 – Uneven
On my first listen, I was sure this tune was the big winner on the disc. Awesomely coo-ed chorus hook? Check. Super-cute lyrics? Check. Was this song “Cherish” V2.0? If we were grading on sound only, yes! On repeat, the weakness of the lyrics really sticks out. I simply don’t dig songs rely on analogies to public figures or brands – it takes me out of the music-listening mode. Well, that’s every verse (“You’re like Abe Lincoln, ’cause you fight for what’s right.” Really?). It’s downhill from there. Lyrics about cell phone passwords? The phrase “super-duper?
Yet, the worst offense is the hopeless devotion vibe of the song. It is beneath Madonna. I’m not saying she can’t love someone. I’ve heard both “Cherish” and “Burning Up.” I get the lyrical device of the biggest star in the world calling someone else her “Superstar.” Even if it is sweet of her to say it still comes off treacly and fake. She should have handed this one over to her daughter Lourdes, who sings backups, or perhaps Katy Perry, who has no inherent sense of of self-worth. Also, for a song with this much kick and tom, they could have used better samples of each.
Self-Reference: Madonna for once underplays potential lyrical shout-outs to “Angel” and “Get Into the Groove.”
13. Beautiful Killer – 2.5/5 – Okay
The lead-off track on the deluxe edition bonus disc is decent but ultimately forgettable, like Music‘s mid-LP filler “Amazing” and “Runaway Lover.” It boasts a strong vocal (with an actual switch to head voice!), but it is disarmed by a plodding drum loop and a boring descending interval on the chorus. Still, on most Madonna LPs this wouldn’t be marooned to a bonus disc – it’s fine mid-album fare.
12. I Don’t Give A 2.5/5 – Okay
High on the list of things that the majority of the world is disinterested in hearing is Madonna’s rapping, closely followed by her discussing the ins and outs of her daily routine in song rather than in a vicious B&W documentary. Yet, here we are again.
Despite my disinterest in the elements, Madonna makes them work better here than on “American Life.” To be honest, the arrangement is kinda tight. The pseudo-rapping is less barky than past efforts and adds a lot of fun melodic shout-backs (I love “take it down a semi-tone”). The “I’m gonna be okay” chorus hook is decent, especially followed by the series of suspended-chord harmony on the next passage.
Lyrically, Madonna isn’t trying to make her life out to be too pedestrian or glamorous – just the life of one of the most famous women in the world (although, minus points for mentioning Wi-Fi and Tweeting, the latter of which she did for the first time the day the album was released). Nicki Minaj manages to deliver an enjoyably schizophrenic rap that is almost on-topic. And, the song ends with a totally weird acappella round of the words “I don’t give a fuck” reminiscent of the acappella Flight-of-Bumblebee score of Glee. In the end, I enjoy that this is the reality of being Madonna – she is always busy, she is good at everything, and she doesn’t give a damn about what you (or I) have to say about it.
11. Give Me All Your Luvin’ – 2.5/5 – Okay
As explored in my #MusicMonday about this tune, despite it being a strong lead-single it has too many casual flaws for me to like it in the long term. Specifically, the terrible plastic arrangement in place of a real rock band and half-hearted guest appearances that don’t capitalize on the skills of Nicki and MIA. Yet, it also bears a undeniable sixties girl group vibe, which I can never completely discard. I suspect this is going to rock much harder on the forthcoming tour.
Self-Reference: “Lucky Star” merits a name-drop.
10. I Fucked Up – 3/5 – Good
There is always certain schadenfreude in Madonna acknowledging her own mistakes in song, especially when it involves her being vulgar. The majority of this song is a delightfully down-tempo electronic track with earphone busting bass drum, simple acoustic guitar, actual strings, and a plaintive, accessible melody. If the track stayed there I would likely rank it higher, but there is a whole “I miss all the stuff we could have done together because we are rich” part. Surprisingly, only a line or two winds up being cringe-worthy, but the cutesy, accelerated major key arrangement is grating right up until it blossoms back into the awesome refrain. This one really deserved to be on the full disc, and it’s much less offensive than “Gang Bang.”
Self-Reference: Checks “Sorry” by apologizing in another language.
9. Masterpiece – 3/5 – Good
Madonna’s Golden Globe winning tune from her film W.E. is a finely-constructed, mid-tempo, acoustronic ballad with lyrics that can withstand scrutiny. Plus, it bears some considerable hooks. The only minor downside is the clipped vocoder vocals behind the lead on the chorus – they would be better as organic supporting harmony. Still, this is a strong (if slightly-forgettable) ballad that might have stood a chance at an Oscar if it was eligible.
8. Falling Free – 3.5/5 – Great
At first it was hard to get a handle on this album-closing track, because there is no attack – no drums or guitar strums to orient you to the passing time. Yet, in the absence of instrumental violence, Madonna is giving this her level-best singing effort on wide, Evita-esque intervals (even if she is benefiting from a little tuning up here and there). Also, the lyrics are legitimate poetry. Part of me is sort of tickled by the idea of Madonna scribbling couplets into a journal by her bedside, but in reality many of them likely came from her cousin Joe Henry, her co-writing bro-in-law and past collaborator on “Don’t Tell Me” and “Jump.”
7. Best Friend – 3.5/5 – Good
Usually any track with those words in the title is going to be a sickly sweet mess unless it is about a dog. Yes, even if it’s by Queen. Yet, this deluxe edition R&B-via-Electronica song is actually a pretty awesome track. It would fit right in on Ace of Base’s The Sign– the synthetic misery could be perfectly tracked next to “Don’t Turn Around,” especially thanks to the faux-Reggae chorus. Unlike a lot of the other ultra-personal divorce songs on the disc, this one doesn’t have a single cringe-worthy moment. Despite a lot of tuning foolery on the vocal, there are some great moments of raw, emotional performance shining through. This one was probably only exiled for not quite fitting into the sound of the LP, which begs the question of how many other amazing genre-breaking tunes Madge has tucked away.
6. Some Girls – 3.5/5 – Great
At first I thought this was a cacophonous toss-away, another divorce-fueled, woman-hating, kiss-off. Instead, it turned out to be the reciprocal of The Rolling Stones song of the same title. Mick sings about all that girls give and take, and so does Madonna, as she watches younger coquettes circle her like pretty, blonde vultures. She dissects them one by one, half a threat, half a scolding to her lovers for their lack of caution, and at least a little self-deprecating (“Some girls make a scene, shoot their mouth and talk obscene”).
This pulsing, pounding track pulls Madonna’s voice like taffy, but keeps her recognizable and distinct. It’s like a more-awesome, more bitchy-version of a killer Britney Spears cut. I will be utterly shocked if this doesn’t see release as a club single.
Self-Reference: The creepy, pitch-shifted, asexual backing vocals call back to Madonna’s boyish intro to “Music,” and at one point say “Like a virgin, sweet and clean.” She lyrically checks “Express Yourself” with “Some girls are second best, put your luvin’ to the test.”
5. I’m A Sinner – 3.5/5 – Great
A religion-referencing retread of Austin Power’s “Beautiful Stranger”? Yes, please. Even if it’s a little derivative, this is the sort of fun, off-the-leash Madonna song that makes her albums great. I love that the highest parts of the vocal aren’t auto-tuned at all, but multi-tracked into near-intelligibility. That it screeches to a halt midway through for a Gaga-aping organ-and-Saints mid-section can be forgiven, since Madonna invented that genre and does it just as well. Also, on a track actually called “I’m a Sinner” it fits right in! The verse phrases’ melodic descent from a high point paired with the monotone musical underpinning is so reminiscent of The Beatles that it has to be intentional. (Perhaps “Love You To”? I can’t quite place it.)
Self-Reference: “Get down on your knees and pray” nods at “Like a Prayer.”
4. Girl Gone Wild – 3.5/5 – Excellent
I dissed this track when it debuted as sounding a little generic for Madonna. However, after hearing the entire album I see a lot more of her in this than I do in many of the other songs, even if she didn’t write it. It is no different than “Everybody” or “Get Into the Groove” – just let the music take you.
The octave-leaping title hook is incredibly infectious, as is Madonna’s recent signature of hiccuping remixed vocals (take that, Gaga, with your Stu-stu-stuttering). Yes, the arrangement is a little clubland generic, but that is the frame this disc is pictured within. On the whole, this helps define the divide between this LP and the R&B of Hard Candy and danceable Confessions on the Dancefloor. MDNA handily achieves both, but it’s more about falling into the synthesizers voice-first until each song becomes its own highly-addictive remix. Also, the video is ultra-hot.
Self-Reference: Intro backgrounds are incredible similar to “Get Together.” Namechecks “Bad Girl.” Starts with a call out to god, as does the Immaculate Collection remix of “Like a Prayer.” Mentions the word “Erotic.” Points off for forgetting that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is not actually a reference to her own music, but the mantra of her main 80s competitor.
3. Turn Up The Radio – 4/5 – Excellent
This is the proof-of-concept track on the disc. It’s youthful, but it’s still Madonna. The arrangement is a little more detailed than “Girls.” In fact, minus the modern synthesizers it could have easily appeared on her first album thanks to the “music will set you free” escapism that she established there and kept on mining for her whole career. The one down side is that the lyrics are weirdly incomplete – the mention beginning a story and approaching a glowing light, but then we only get “moth/flame” metaphors as our reward.
2. I’m Addicted – 4.5/5 – Remarkable
This track sounds stolen from La Roux’s 2009 debut in the best possible way. The arrangement, performance, and lyrics could all stand up next to her delicious “Bulletproof.” It starts with one of my favorite Madonna lyrics of all time:
When did your name change from a word to a charm?
No other sound makes the hair stand up on the back of my arm
All of the letters pushed to the front of my mouth
And saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout
And I can’t get it out
Are you fucking kidding me? On a Madonna song? That lyric is amazing! Around her words a spool of arppegiated synths unfurl. They are contained to higher frequencies for over a minute, and just as you begin to wonder if this tune will ever have a proper thump they swell downward to fill up the low end. It is the best-case scenario for an entirely synthesizer-based song – it is intricately detailed and covers a wide dynamic range.
(Sadly, we can’t necessarily attribute the lyrics to Madonna, as the producer team behind this one also delivered “Girl Gone Wild, words and all.)
Self-Reference: So, would she say that when she calls your name, it’s like… a little prayer?
It’s hard to believe “I’m Addicted” didn’t nab the #1 spot from me, as it rightfully would have on either of the last two Madonna albums, but MDNA has an incredibly clear victor:
1. Love Spent – 5/5 – Unassailable
I suppose I have to take back what I said above about songs written by committee, because this song has as many songwriters as “Gang Bang,” but that is the only sentence that should ever mention them both in a single breath.
This song is amazing. One of her best ever. It starts with a banjo, of all things, and then an electronics-coated Madonna voice singing higher than her usual (maybe even in her elusive mixed register). It gets personal right off the bat – would she be divorced (or: even married) if she wasn’t Madonna? Can anyone love her as a person separately from her bank account?
Luckily, in the midst the heavy contemplation, the song is almost all-hook – remarkable, considering how many words it has. I have found myself singing almost every section of the song on repeat under my breath this past week, not the least of which are the songs sharpest lyrics:
Hold me like your money
Tell me that you want me
Spend your love on me
Love me like your money
Spend it till there’s nothing
Spend your love on me
The song would be great even if it stopped with that as its chorus, but then it moves on to the major-key relief of the title line. It’s like a balm to the rest of the song every time it appears.
This is what I hope for from every new Madonna album – an expanded sound, a new perspective, and a clever way to express an already heavily-treaded sentiment.
Self-Reference: The “your voice / no choice” rhyme from (yet again) “Like a Prayer.” It’s a goldmine of ideas, apparently.