Any week that includes the release of a new Madonna album is a national holiday for me, and this past week’s release of Rebel Heart was the most-exciting Madonna holiday of all time.
In its Super Deluxe format, Rebel Heart is a 23-track album – Madge’s longest-yet. By itself, that’s cause for celebration – especially given that her early 00s LPs were just 10-tracks a piece! Plus, due to various pre-release leaks, there are another 16 songs from this album cycle in various stages of completeness floating around the internet.
I’m typically not too interested in leaked albums – whether the LP is finished or not, I know I’ll buy it when it comes out, anyway. However, in this case the first leaked tune was the title track, a curious acoustic and strings composition that really piqued my interest for the album as a whole.
With the album in-hand and digested, I realized the final version of “Rebel Heart” was pretty distinctly different than the outstanding leak, and I sought out all the other demos. That’s what brings me to this best-holiday-ever. Not only does that yield 39 total songs – a triple-album bounty – but it’s a rare chance to appreciate Madonna’s songwriting and production process by comparing demos to the final tracks. And, even more amazing – there’s nothing truly bad out of the 39!
(Before you ask: No, I do not have the demos to share with you. Just Google each track name and “Madonna Rebel Heart Demo” and you will find some means of hearing them.)
You should know a three things about me:
- I have been a Madonna fan for as long as I can remember, which happens to be around the time of Like a Virgin’s release.
- I have been a musician for considerably less time than I’ve been a Madonna fan, but each influences the other.
- I have been known to like some of the odder songs in Madonna’s catalogue. I love I’m Breathless and American Life. I love “Love Song” and “Bedtime Story.”
Now that you know what you’re getting into, let’s begin.
39. Score [demo]
Pull, up, shoot, score
Make the crowd go wild
Fast, break, back door
Put it up in style
This demo feels like a leftover from the sporty, pre-Superbowl MDNA – not only for the start-to-finish sports metaphors, but because it employs a similar vocal tone to “Gimme All Yr Love.” Musically it’s mostly a marching band drum beat and an arpeggiated loop of big rubbery bass.
There’s no one or two things you can remove from this to make it less silly (okay, maybe the “da da dada da da, CHARGE!” organ sample), yet it’s not even a bad song. It’s catchy! The “boy let’s sweat, and I’ll work your body body” refrain is cute and just as sexy as more explicit content we’ll touch on below. It makes me happy to know that Madonna spent at least 3:15 minutes focusing on this idea (and, presumably more to come up with all those clever lyrics).
38. Back That Up (Do It) [demo]
Mean the metaphor
Move to the beat of the
Sway to the rhythm of
Wave it around like a
A demo-only appearance, this is an ultra-stripped version of Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” sound with Madonna drenched in reverb and a random operatic riff in the background. Those hallmarks make it seem plausible this was a Hard Candy track and not meant for Rebel Heart.
It’s a fun little hunk of disco, but I’m not sure it could have been improved through additional arrangement … although a thumping mastered version would be a booty-shaking delight.
37. S.E.X. [on Deluxe Version]
When you read my mind, get down and discover me
I’m an open door, let you come inside of me
Wanna put my hands around your neck
Gonna take you to a place that you will not forget
S.E.X.? More like “D.O.A.”!
Madonna wants you to pull her hair and have sex with her – not so different than what she was telling us 20 years ago. In that proud history of her raunchy sex songs, this one barely ranks – it’s more clinical than sexy in its plainness.
The one good element is the moaned “Oh my God” at the top of the verse. I’m already unconsciously singing along with it. It’s a sparse song with plenty of room, with just a subsonic bass loop dominating. The worst element is either the hilarious R&B cadence of Madge singing, “Sex, whatchoo know ’bout sex?” or the ridiculous list of sex tools she talks about at the end (including chopsticks and raw meat). Oh, and some of the same sound effects from “Holy Water” … we’ll get to that in a moment.
Altogether it’s both silly and inelegant, which are two words I never want to see in the same sentence describing Madonna.
(The demo is intriguing – it adds a lot of context. By placing the vocals in the center of a sparse arrangement, Madonna’s vocal performance dignifies the lyrics a bit. There’s also a brief refrain of “there’s no shame in feeling,” which somehow makes the abruptness of the rest of the song seem more intentional and less silly. Also, there are more passing chords under the chorus that resolve major before all the background tonality strips out for a half-time refrain of “you’ve got a bad attitude.” It’s so much cleaner, and the elegance of that allows it to be a little silly without being embarrassing. Also: no list of random household objects. This could have easily been an Erotica track.)
36. God Is Love [demo]
If God is love and love is God
No magician sitting in the clouds
Never let a set of rules
Determine what you say or do
Another demo-only tune. It starts with a rich three-chord acoustic piano figure that might make this sound like it was headed in the direction of lead single “Living For Love,” but then aerobic acoustic finger-picking is layered atop it and the song just gets muddled – even moreso when it adds martial snare drums.
The lyrics are some heavy-handed yet lightweight intro-to-religion musings, paired with the refrain “never stop believing” – which, given the framing, doesn’t have the inspiring message it typical bears in a Journey song. A more accurate lyric might have been “ever stop believing in your religion because god is love unless you have a hateful religion in which case stop believing the hateful parts because they are inconvenient to the theme of this song.”
This one just never resolved into a fully-formed idea. But, hey, that’s what demos are for! Good on Madonna for giving up on this one.
35. Heaven [demo]
My heart is a wasteland
My soul is a ghosttown
This bed is sinking sand
And we’re both going down
Another demo, and this one had some potential. It starts subtle, with just a double-tracked vocal singing the lyrics above over a tremolo synth like the one in “Dancing On My Own.” The problem with it is that the prominent piano “angels cry … angels sigh … when we fall out of love” refrain feels completely disconnected from the icy strength of the verse.
Despite the disconnect, Madonna sounds especially lovely here and the arrangement is good – at a point when she hisses “you’re my angel” at the end we’re in straight up Garbage debut territory. It just needed some editing.
34. Freedom [demo]
Learn to live your life in the pursuit of happiness
Never take for granted, freedom is a privilege
Prison is a state of mind we build around ourselves
Take responsability, you can’t blame someone else
Freedom is a major theme of this record, but this one never escaped the demo phase.
“Every revolution starts inside a broken heart,” proclaims Madonna in Evita mode over a stridently strummed acoustic guitar. “Never take for granted freedom is a privilege,” she preaches! The chorus is “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” There’s a “whoa-oh!” refrain. She references MLK. There’s a spoken-word segment.
It’s the distillation of every embarrassing folk song you’ve heard at an open mic, and just as you would tap your foot to those there’s a certain charming element here. It’s charming to think that Madonna in her 50s will sit down and write the kind of song just like a college freshman might.
I don’t mind it being out in the world, but it was the right move not to develop it for the disc. However, it does bear the early trademark of the overpushed, clipping kick drum that shows up elsewhere on the disc.
33. Take It Back [demo]
Baby let’s not hesitate
I’d like to negotiate
I can make your dreams come true
Here is what you gotta do
A demo that is likely an outgrowth of “Back That Up,” as this is a more-developed bite of “Sexyback” with a similar rhythm. Even the “take it back” feels just like the way Justin croons “sexyback” in the background of his song. The disco-ball groove is reminiscent of the mid-tempo dance cuts of Bedtime Stories but also of “You Can Dance” remixes of tunes like “Into The Groove.” I love that it lyric checks “Knock On Wood.”
Yet, they never really hit on a killer hook, and six minutes of this sort of single-chord riff is something not even Michael Jackson could carry off without some variance.
32. Trust No Bitch [demo]
You can trust no bitch
They can flip the switch
Knowledge is power
You can trust no bitch
Ever heard about karma
Just a word about trauma
That’s what you have coming to you
A demo with the best name ever. Ever.
The basic synth patch that starts this off makes it feel like a throw-back to Madonna’s debut and so does the vocal. There’s a very pleasing plainness about this song, though its drum machine loop sometimes bothers to drop in a little fill. It’s amazing that her original 1983 aesthetic is now the hottest thing in indie pop!
This is nothing revelatory. It’s some girl-on-girl violence, as Madonna kisses off all the untrustworthy bitches – except, doesn’t that make her one too? Some of the lyrics make it a little unclear about why we don’t trust the bitches, but dear lord the disco of it is just so good.
I don’t know that I would want to much to be changed about this, even if it would have been more at home on MDNA. Perhaps deserved to be the final chapter in the “Bitch Trilogy” on this album with “Bitch, I’m Madonna” and “Unapologetic Bitch.”
Best rhyme: “Besties? You had your hand on his testes!”
31. Take A Day [demo]
I’ve been waiting my whole life for this (take a day)
This is my moment, can I steal a kiss (take a day)
24 hours, we can get this done (take a day)
I’d like to start off with some harmless fun
I lack the vocabulary to describe this demo. It has a Tin Pan Alley feel, but also a sort of 70s country rock element? There’s a great, twee electric piano chiming throughout, but it’s sometimes joined by stack of ukeleles and ah-ing harmonies that wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio next to “Mr Sandman” up until Madonna intones, “Or, we could just bang bang bang bang bang bang bang.” In that way (classic by transgressive), it’s like a lost I’m Breathless track!
This is the weird sort of style melt that Pharrel specializes in, and it’s almost certainly his voice in the stacked harmony calling back to Madonna. She does some old-lyric quoting, which gives me the sense she uses it a lot as a placeholder and then decides she prefers it. Her voice sounds normal and human here, flawed without being shrill.
Clearly it was never going to make the album in this format, and while I can hear a lot of directions it could go in I don’t really want to change. It’s lovely just as it is.
30. Holy Water
There’s something you gotta hit
It’s sacred and immaculate
I can let you in heaven’s door
I promise you it’s not a sin
Find salvation deep within
We can do it here on the floor
I’m really torn on this one. Sonically, it’s one of my favorite things on the disc with one specific exception. The production is fantastic, the actual chorus of “Kiss it better, make it wetter” is effectively catchy, and the heavy synth-bass refrain recalls recent Gaga thumpers like “Judas” and “Swine.”
So why is it down here in the dumps? The silly moaning and squirting (I’m not kidding) sounds sampled on the chorus. The constant screaming “bitch get off my pole,” apropos of nothing. Sampling an entire section of “Vogue” to try to give this some resonance. But, at least there’s a little more of a simile to hang this sex on here compared to “S.E.X.”!
In the hands of someone willing to push Madonna out of the fake shock zone and into good dance music this could have been awesome – because it already sounds awesome. It just needed a little less excess. And don’t even get me started about how this made it onto the standard version of the LP.
(The demo has the “get off my pole” comments, but mercifully leaves off the “ahh, oo, [squirt]” noises. There was a lot of great development of the bottom end between here and the LP version, but like a good outfit they should have taken off a few accessories before walking out the door.)
29. Revolution [demo]
It’s calling out our names
It’s a constitution, and our struggles are all the same
Who can you blame? The revolution
Holy shit, this is a pure folk-rock three-piece demo – a little more developed than its optimistic precursor “Freedom.” Yeah, Madonna is done with all that positive thinking now. Let’s knock down some walls.
I wouldn’t blink twice if I saw Madonna doing this at an open mic night, between the Mumford-esque frantic strumming and singing about an unspecified “Revolution.” Yet, there’s some craft here that’s undeniable. The low alto “ain’t no stopping us today” chant. The lilting intervals she climbs on the titular word followed by the walk back is really, really catch. This isn’t college freshman territory anymore. It’s actually pretty damn compelling.
If this was dressed up for the LP it would have probably been ruined like “Devil Pray” (more on that in a moment) but I can easily picture an electric version influenced by The Clash that would be hot. Also, the lyrics just never gets as embarrassingly earnest as some of the other unused demos – for a song called “Revolution” is pretty non-lame.
28. Nothing Lasts Forever [demo]
Can you love me like the world is ending
Hold me like it’s Armageddon
Don’t stop ’cause nothing lasts forever
You can save me, never let me go
And make me indestructible
Nothing lasts forever
Another one that didn’t escape the demo phase, although perhaps it should have.
A rapidly plucked sitar and tapped tabla give the verses of this an Eastern flavor and a Ray of Light era vibe, and you can hear how the titular chorus could turn into a major dancefloor smash. Lyrically it’s a canary for the coal mine we’re about to head into – Madonna isn’t usually about end-of-the-world pessimism, but the theme keeps popping up as we get deeper into the disc.
Despite that, the song is a little vague. Despite the strong “Armageddon” couplets, there’s not a lot of content here, and as a title “Nothing Lasts Forever” is plain. Is that why this get left on the cutting room floor? If so, I’m a little sad it didn’t merit some more work. It’s hard to believe it’s for the sitar not fitting in with the rest of the disc, given the range of the rest of it.
27. Devil Pray
Take my sins and wash them away
Teach me how to pray
I’ve been stranded here in the dark
Take these walls away
I get the feeling that this is probably going to be my controversial choice, but I have to go with my gut – that this is a confusing song with a middling vocal performance.
“Devil Pray” is a dark acoustic ballad that turns into a sort of Irish jig. Or maybe the other way around? This song is at war with itself, the thunky acoustic verse chords versus slinky drug-dealing pre-choruses fighting with the “Cotton-Eyed-Joe” choruses. And, it’s not in a pleasing, mind-fucking way like “Impressive Instant” and “Love Spent.” The devil prays, and then he fools ya.
It just feels like three different songs on shuffle. For the record, each song is individually enjoyable. There is good content here. The overall theme is that religion isn’t too different from drugs, but personal relationships are the thing that grants you peace and serenity. It reminds me of Billy Joel’s demo of “Only The Good Die Young” where it’s a reggae song. It’s fine, but it’s not a classic. This song has good bones, but it’s the wrong execution.
A final nail in the coffin: The vocals have a lot of weak spots, both in performance and production. This song was in the group that was rush-released after the demo leak, and it sounds like they stuck with an unfinished vocal that needed some improvement and recutting. There’s some points where minor brushing-up auto-tune is fighting against Madonna, and not in a pleasing, intentional way (well, if it was intentional, it sounds bad). Also, she’s at peak nasal shrillness.
After all that, I have to say: I like this song. I sing along to it. But it seems like there was a lot of better material to choose from. It just so happened this one was ready to shove out the door at the right time.
(The demo adds a little 80s fantasy movie synth intro and has drums on every quarter note from the top. On the whole it’s a more generic version of the final, and what it gains in cohesiveness it loses for being unremarkable.)
26. Tragic Girl [demo]
Every time you say good-bye
It feels like the end of the world
Every time I start to cry
I feel like the most tragic girl
A demo-only tune. This really feels like a great Madonna song despite the generic lyrics, and it’s a pity it didn’t get developed further. When I’m ready to write it off due to its lack of substance I hear the chorus quoted above and realize how well this fits in with the rest of the disc.
Peals of descending acoustic arpeggios give me hope for a future duet on this track with T-Swift.
As with the official album, I’d make the final cut at 25 songs (though, the Super Deluxe version used two remixes to hit that number. That means from here on in I’m choosing songs that I believe should have found their way onto some release of the LP.
25. Alone With You [demo]
There you go
Didn’t you make a convenient exit
I’d rather be on my own
I’d rather be all alone
There’s something you didn’t know
Here you come
Trying to make a convenient entrance
I’m turning my heart into stone
I’d rather be all alone
Than be alone with you
I feel like these demos are progressively charting the growth of a folk-rock hero – first “Freedom,” then “Revolution,” and finally “Alone With You,” which is willing to make the conflict personal. Madonna spent her 20s dancing, so she’s spending her 50s learning how to be an acoustic rocker and I love every minute of it.
This is a great song. It does this special ABBA-flavored magic trick of reversing its polarity at the chorus by changing the emphasis of the beats and the register of the vocal. It’s very memorable – and it doesn’t hurt to have a real piano player on it who can do more than just bang whole chords.
There’s also a pleasant girl group feel to the refrain, “I’d rather be all alone than alone with you,” that makes it easy to compare Madonna to Chrissie Hynde. (And why don’t we do that more often?)
On the whole, it’s probably too sunny to have made any version of the LP without significant reworking, which in turn might have stripped it of its charm, so I’m happy to have it in this form.
It’s not Isis or the Phoenix, Pyramids of Egypt
Don’t make it into something sordid
It’s not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates
It’s not the Google of United States
It’s not Bieber or Lebron
Clinton or Obama
Or anyone you’d love to hate
In case you ever wondered what you’d get from crossing Kanye and Madonna: an amazing contralto rapping voice she should use on everything, more self-obsession than usual although you never previously conceived that as possible, and on the whole a “just okay” track.
The issue is that Madonna got stuck a little too far up her own ass on this one. She’s trying to disprove the idea of the present-day Illuminati, but she also wants to educate us about who the real Illuminati are, but also also wants to let us know we are all shining like Illuminati. EVERYONE GETS AN ILLUMINATI MEMBERSHIP! Which I concede is the point of this song.
Yet, yet, yet… the song is ear-wormy as hell. The production is fantastic, and it doesn’t genre-hop like “Devil Pray.” Still, there are just too many elements clamoring for attention, and it’s borderline silly. It’s a shame to see something so well-developed in many ways fail to land a solid hit.
(The demo is a mishmash of more sampled sounds. They help stitch the different parts of the song together better, but it’s too garish and hard to pay attention to – and then an acoustic guitar comes out of nowhere! They certainly spent time trying to get this right.)
23. Inside Out
I wanna know what you’re all about
You’re beautiful when you’re broken down
Let your walls crumble to the ground
Let me love you from the inside out
This starts out promising with menacing NIN-style synth bass, but Madonna is buried in a coffin of reverb that reflects back from every corner of the song. It’s hard to discern the melody at points, which isn’t aided by massive clipped drums that further obscure the melody. The “let me love you from the inside out” hook isn’t very strong, which leaves the song with virtually nothing to say for itself. The engineering decisions are puzzling. Luckily, there’s a more-coherent demo to rely on.
This song was too weak to make the standard version of the LP. There are at least three songs good enough to replace it.
(Here’s one where the demo is a huge improvement, and why I have this song ranked where it is. A throbbing drum beat evokes NIN’s “Closer” even more and the synth sounds are not as polished. Stripping the reverb, adding acoustic guitar, and making the piano on the chorus more prominent allows the song to get briefly brighter before getting dark again. It creates an interesting dichotomy, with Madonna being alternatingly threatening and reassuring. Is loving from the inside out an act of trust or penetration? This mix makes the case that it’s both, and proves why the song made the LP.)
22. Hold Tight
A million miles later
We walked through the valley of the darkest night
We made it through the fire
We’re scarred and we’re bruised but our hearts will guide us
I have heard this song over a dozen times now, and I can never remember what it sounds like past Madonna yelling “Hold! Tight!” The lyrics are general “time are tough, the world is metaphorically dangerous.” The drums are a generic sample that should have never made it past the demo stage. Yet, then I hear it and I’m like, “Oh, this has all that stuff I wanted to add to “HeartBreakCity. Cool.” Why don’t I like it more?” (The answer might be Diplo, who is quickly proving to be not my favorite producer on this disc).
The verdict is that much as bad production choices can derail a strong song, good choices can elevate a forgettable one. Even without a great hook to make it memorable, this is a pleasant song to hear. The “hold tight” refrain is kind of interesting over that same martial drum rhythm as we’ve heard elsewhere (this is the problem with not including a live drummer on your tracking – lack of variation).
I feel like there could have been a more textured song on the standard LP in the place of this one, considering how much it overlaps “HeartBreakCity.”
(The demo is radically different in structure and pushed this in more of a La Roux indie-dance direction. It was all a good idea – it’s a hell of a lot more unique and sticky with the elements they used. The demo develops the first chorus much more quickly, bridging from the verse with the line “No matter what the world throws at us, we’ll get back up again.” The quicker verse sections with the added synth motion beneath the words lets the song hit harder. Then, the first “Hold! Tight!” in each chorus is with music tacit. The one weaker point is the great bridge “I don’t want to breath air that you’re not breathing” isn’t as differentiated from the rest of the song – except, that’s mostly because the rest of the song is better.)
21. Autotune Baby [on the German Deluxe version]
I told you I don’t want you all the time
Cause you’re not mine
I’m not in love, but I’m in light
So far it’s working fine
But when I need you then I’m desperate
I’m a little child
Just like an animal, down on my knees
I am not generally excited by songs that start with a crying baby, even if they are by Stevie Wonder. “Autotune Baby” takes a crying baby and molds it into the backing of a song in a tepid approximation of “Drunk In Love.”
Except… maybe this isn’t awful? When I force myself to forgive the titular conceit, this is a pretty good song in a simple True Blue style that pairs with the “unlock me” callback to “Open Your Heart.” It has a charming little chiming piano chorus that ends with the line “Put my head on your shoulder and rock me.” And, despite the potential ookiness of the baby theme and the sex theme, the two just don’t cross over. It stays a sweet song about needing to be loved and cared for, and Madonna’s bright vocals manage not to be nasal and call back to Bedtime Stories.
It feels obvious from the title that this is meant to be a throwaway “look, I’m letting you hear a demo” bonus track like “B-Day Song” on her last disc, but it’s
(No demo of this one, but from the title I’d say it probably is a demo, more or less. It was released in Germany.)
20. Best Night [on Deluxe version]
All you had as dreams, don’t hold back
All the fantasies you ever had
Just do what you like, go ahead
Close your eyes, make a wish, no regrets
I’ll make this the best night of your life
This feels like a Rihanna imitation, from the sparse verse with massive sampled kick drums down to the “we gon’ be like” opening to each phrase. There’s something undeniable compelling to the monotone “I’ll make this the best night of your life” backed by stacks of harmony and a fiddly Indian-influenced melody in the background. The next line, “lose your self control – we can go higher” breaks the single-note melody and escalates to the highest note in the vocal. It’s just a nice piece of construction.
Good songwriting typically beats good production choices, and despite being another tepid sex song this one actually has both. Then it quotes the entire chorus of “Justify My Love,” which just makes me want to hear a modern update of that song.
(The demo is nearly identical, with the chorus vocal layering slightly less-developed.)
19. Veni Vidi Vici [on Deluxe version]
I was fearless like a renegade
I had a feeling that I can’t explain
I didn’t listen to what people said (whatcha do)
I came, I saw, I conquered
This is an instance of Madonna rapping that completely works, but it’s messed up by the actual rapper.
Madonna growls her life-story, complete with checking tons of famous lyrics. If you’re a Madonna junky it cannot help but stick in your head because you’ve heard all the phrases already. When it seems like it’s going to turn into a pounding club tune it lightens up with a strummed acoustic guitar and a pretty melody. It’s a great feel change that makes the hook really stand out. The only bad thing is Nas – his rap is all about him, and doesn’t really fit with a song all about how Madonna is an unstoppable conquerer.
(Luckily, the demo leaves off the rap while otherwise being pretty similar.)
Torn me into pieces
Didn’t have no damn reason
I let you in my house
You helped yourself to everything
And left me with your mess
This one proves that I’m not always completely in love with sparse Madonna songs with acoustic instruments. It’s a stark, alto-range piano ballad that eventually gains some martial snare drums and chanting men. It feels like it has a Kanye influence even if he’s not on it. On the whole there’s nothing wrong with it except for being pretty dull.
It honestly needed more of the drama of the chorus to lift it to Les Miserables level of drama so you’d hold up a lighter at a concert.
(The demo hadn’t figured out the snare drums yet, but is otherwise pretty close.)
17. Never Let You Go [demo]
I’m not alone
I’ll be dancing with this vision
I’ve made my decision
Won’t let you go
A demo-only tune. Clearly the marimba-like backing is a temporary track that never got replaced, but it lets you imagine this as anything from a club thumper to a gaudy mid-Eastern affair like “Like a Virgin” from Blonde Ambition. Also, the vocal hook is interesting, repeatedly pushing Madonna up into mixed voice for the final words of a line, like “you know I loved you THE MOST, I’m not ashamed to say I never let you go.”
Given how far we’ve seen some of the other demos get developed, this could have turned into something great. It’s pretty damned listenable as it is.
16. Borrowed Time [on Super Deluxe version]
Cause we’re only here to love
Like there’s no tomorrow
So let’s live each moment like
Our time is only borrowed
A great thunky descending acoustic guitar grounds this one, a downtempo folk song that sounds like a Music/American-Life crossover as Madonna insists, “We’re only here to love like there’s no tomorrow.”
I’m probably more interested in it for the intriguing guitar arrangement than any other reason, but those first lines from Madonna (“Do we need to fight a war?” “Do we need to build a bomb?”) are pretty great and the drumming feels right. There’s a few dumb decisions along the way, like breathing in the middle of the word “virgin” (really, not enough practice with singing that word, Madonna?).
(The demo adds a second, higher guitar on a counterpoint melody and delays the drums longer, but when they finally come in they’re accompanied by a lame flute counter-melody and a boring synth break to get back into the guitars. I think she was wise to drop the counter-melody on the verses, it took away from her vocal.)
Here’s where I’d make the cut for a regular-length LP and begin an extras disc. What two demo-only songs did I call up to the big leagues? And, what three demo versions of album cuts do I swear are the essential versions? Keep reading.
15. Bitch, I’m Madonna
We hit the elevator right up to the rooftop
The bass is pumping, make me wanna screw the top off
Yeah we’ll be drinking and nobody’s gonna stop us
And we’ll be kissing anybody that’s around us
I just wanna have fun tonight
Pull me under the flashing light
Ooohh wanna blow up this house tonight
It’s a sad state of affairs that the average arrangement of this song feels like one of the most current-Madonna-sounding songs on the disc.
This song has three distinct elements. One is a quickly-strummed acoustic chords and a high “oo oo” melodic hook. The next is a girlish verbal patter about roof-top parties and drinking that feels like some of the more light-weight songs on MDNA thanks to a trebly synth riff below it. Then there’s an R&B bit with the vibrating low drums and what sounds like an 8-bit version of an oboe. Oh, and a fine but irrelevant rap by Ms. Minaj, and then an end part that’s a mix between a barking dog and a wood block.
It’s mega-catchy and I’m sure adheres perfectly to some current genre of music, but that’s my exact beef with it – it’s a by-the-numbers imitation instead of Madonna creating something vital and unique of her own.
(The demo is missing the Nikki rap, which doesn’t really change it for better or worse.)
14. Living For Love
Took me to heaven, let me fall down
Now that it’s over, I’m gonna carry on
Lifted me up and watched me stumble
After the heartache I’m gonna carry on
This is a great track with some distracting problems. Madonna sings in a voice that is both mannish and nasal – it’s an impressive feat. There is also an impressive amount of blending between Madonna and her featured gospel supporting vocals to mask how little Madge is actually contributing to this track. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that even in the studio she can’t seem to get to the top of those “living for love” belts on the chorus.
Then there is the weird lo-fi male howling at the end. It sounds bad, yet this is a recurring theme on this disc. It seems like something i can blame on Kanye, but this is a Diplo track.
All of that aside, it’s still a great track from Diplo (with piano from Alicia Keys!) – it feels quintessentially Madonna without copying any of her older work. I’m willing to give it a little benefit of the doubt since it was the first song out after the leak – perhaps Madonna intended to do another pass at the vocals (although the other demos here suggest she *does not* tend to recut vocals). A whole LP that managed to do this sort of modern-House thing would have slayed.
(The demo verses are stripped down just to the mannish and nasal voice – oh, joy! The interesting stuff is that the chorus relies much more on pounded acoustic piano chords to carry it, the post-chorus refrain has a “Vogue”-esque bassline, and Madonna sounds fine with all the gospel elements mixed lower and blended into her voice. The bassline comes back later – it dates the song, but it’s also a compelling element. After the first two choruses this includes a chant of “lord, lord lift me, god forgive me” before the part where Madonna suddenly screams “UP UP UP UP” like an angry toddler, which makes so much more sense. It seems like this one got a little smothered in the rush to get the advance EP out.)
13. Graffiti Heart [on Super Deluxe version]
Love is pain and pain is art
Show me your graffiti heart
I had to let go my hatred of the opening line on this one, “If graffiti on the wall changed anything at all it’d probably be illegal.” Because, um, it is illegal and it does sometimes mean something?
One-line hatred aside, this is a nice mid-album song because it’s a little insubstantial but it’s fucking catchy. It starts as a downtempo piano-based tune that feels like a One Republic song, but the chorus accelerates into a sort of Iconca Pop scream-along refrain. It’s nothing remarkable, but I don’t mind LP deep cuts being this pleasant and put-together instead of a wide miss.
(The demo was clearly an early one, with a generic arrangement built around the vocal. The beats on the chorus hits all of the quarters straight through rather than the interesting syncopation and drum fills of the final. It’s cool to hear how something that could have been so sleepy turned into a fine album cut.)
12. Beautiful Scars [on Super Deluxe version]
Never say never, anything is possible
Always been a rebel, overcoming obstacles
I can’t give you perfect but I can give you forever
Take me with all of my beautiful scars
I love you the way that you are
I come to you with all my flaws
From the instrumental intro it sounds like we’re back into “Vogue” territory with clanging chords and a handclap drum loop. However, the cooed vocals and wheezing synth bass invert the focus and make this something more subtle. It would have felt at home on the back half of Music. Still, you can feel that 90s House influence on a lovely disco-ball refrain backed by strings.
Despite its ranking towards the bottom of what I’d include on the standard album, this is of the most quintessential Madonna songs in this cycle.
(As a demo it had more of an indie-rock feel, substituting a flanged guitar for the piano chords. The riffing doesn’t let up on the pre-chorus to give us room to breath, but it leads to a more driving chorus and a refrain lifted from “Crazy For You” rather than the House-style break. It’s still good, but not as lovely as the final version.)
11. Messiah [on Deluxe Version]
I am the moon with no light of my own
You are the sun guarding your throne
I heard the angels whisper to me
Look for the signs, he is the one
This is very unusual. The verse’s dramatic, twinkling piano arrangement makes it sound like this could be from Madonna’s scrapped musical (emphasized by strings and woodwinds). Yet, the production tries to dress it up a little as a dramatic rock ballad. It also has the vibe of a B-Side of Like a Prayer that connects it to “Oh, Father” and “Spanish Eyes.”
(“I light a caaaaandle…”)
I always believe the lyrics to songs like this one are entirely written by Madonna. There’s just something about the naked metaphor of her poetry that I’m convinced she would edit if it came from someone else. It makes me want to shake her and say, “this is more interesting than the cowritten bullshit you use – do it more.”
It’s out of place on this disc on the whole, but it’s a great anchor for the more ballad-heavy version of this we almost got. I love the final line, “I’ll cast a spell that you can’t undo ’til you wake up and find that you love me too.” There’s a nice assonance going on in the way she sings it. Back in the day I would have hoped it would show up on a soundtrack, but now it’s just one more tune to potentially get lost in the tide of new songs.
(A demo is even more Broadway in style, with more strings and no drum machine trappings heading into the chorus of “I’ll light a candle!” It’s terrific – worth seeking out.)
10. Unapologetic Bitch
It took a minute but now I’m feeling strong
It almost killed me but I’m better off alone
Now you’re saying that you’re sorry, I don’t wanna know
Better face the fact you had to go
It might sound like I’m an unapologetic bitch
But sometimes you know I gotta call it like it is
Here’s Madonna Reggae entry.
It’s… fine? Maybe good?
Unlike her repeated impersonation of current R&B tropes elsewhere on the record, this doesn’t feel like she’s copping someone else’s vibe in specific. Okay, maybe No Doubt, but that’s more of a historical influence than a current event at this point.
The genre fits the song well. Unlike other songs whose demos show they’ve hopskotched through several styles, nothing about this sound feels shoehorned onto the lyrics. Everything is working in the same direction.
The title says all you need to know about the theme of the song. It’s a “Sorry, not sorry” non-apology from the queen of being right. This braggadocio version of Madonna can get tiresome – there’s a thin line to tread between singing about fame and singing about being rich and famous. Here it’s defused specifically by the theme of the song. The whole point is she shouldn’t have to apologize about the fame making her rich and famous.
There’s this amusing thing that happens in the chorus where after Madonna says “bitch” too many times in a row her voice is replaced with various siren noises that you might use to torture prisoners. Seriously, it’s funny, I’ve started singing along to it.
(The demo is nearly identical, with a few misplaced little noises here and there. Mostly it just doesn’t have the loudness and mastering of the LP.)
9. Addicted [on Super Deluxe version]
You’re watching me crawl
You get your kicks, take your fist, put it right through the wall
The drug that I crave
You’re so clever, you’re the devil, watch you slither away
See I don’t know what it is
But I’m attracted to the dark
And it was easy to predict
You were gonna be the one who broke my heart
This is a fine retread of past themes, which is welcomed on such an all-over LP.
Madonna’s voice is a low croon in good, supple shape. The descending electric guitar arpeggios and doubled acoustic strums evoke Music. The single-note variance in the chorus vocal nods back to the b-sides of her first album (“I Know It”) before heading into synthy club thumping that would have been at home on Confessions.
Madonna enjoys (and maybe overuses) metaphors of love as both religion and addiction, but you can’t blame her when she delivers clever little twists like, “you’re so clever, you’re the devil, watch you slither away.” When she’s constrained to more generic relationship topics the lyrics just don’t resonate like they do when she’s in one of her favored themes. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m attracted to the dark” is a classic line.
An entire disc that sounds and feels like this would be reductive (after all, the second-best song on MDNA was “I’m Addicted”), but sometimes it’s nice to have a something familiar to hold on to.
(In demo form it was nearly identical, with more vocal layering and some rising chords beneath the chorus. The LP version is a little cleaner.)
Tell me I’m no good and I’ll be great
Say I have to fight and I can’t wait
Standing in the wings
A butterfly that stings
I will rise above ’cause it’s my fate
Mike Tyson and Chance The Rapper – how could you go wrong?
That’s a rhetorical question mostly because there are a thousand ways that could go wrong, which makes it all the more surprising that this is maybe the best rap mash-up on the disc and a likely single.
I know, I know, you don’t believe me. It’s just that this one sounds incredibly “Madonna” without being a retread of an old cliché of hers. It’s more or less Madonna’s version of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” It’s so much more interesting than the Perry song (which she gently lyric-checks) for not overusing any one of its elements to the point that your ears bleed. The pre-chorus hook of “I-can, I-con, two letters apart, one step away from being lost in the dark” is obscenely catchy – it’s one of the first hooks from the disc I kept singing after I turned off. The EDM-tinged chorus makes me want to shake my ass. It is the only dance song on the LP that’s memorable for me.
But, most importantly, Chance’s rap completely fits the song! It does not feel like a random stranger walked into a track he never listened to before. It fits thematically, it fits tonally. Maybe that’s because Chance doesn’t let his style or flow take over the track like Nikki and Nas do elsewhere.
On the whole I chalk it up as a win. I never skip it.
(The demo was a very early one – the verse was still just single piano chords, and the pre-chorus just claps on every beat! The “Iconic” chorus wasn’t pushed to be as R&B radio-ready and has a peculiar and fascinating vibe of the X-Files theme song. It’s awesome to hear how a basic arrangement can turn into a huge pop radio production.)
7. Queen [cut from the final Super Deluxe version]
Black parade, motorcade
Destiny sings farewell, church bells
Is anyone listening
Everywhere bowed in prayer
Tears are falling
Coming down, coming down
I hear the heaven’s calling
Providence, no evidence
There’s no confirmation
And only silence remains
We only know one thing
Yet another fantastic ballad! Where the hell did this one come from? Sighing male harmony vocals resolve into sustained chords above a fuzz bass before Madonna enters in a voice that sounds like it was imported from a decade ago or more.
“It will never rain, never rain. If the great sky falls down, no rain, no more rain. Blood’s pouring down, high alert, we watch it burn. It’s a world under siege. Sirens, sirens, everyone’s whispering.” It’s a dark, pessimistic, apocalyptic version of Madonna we never get to see, culminating in a chorus of “The queen’s been slain – she’ll never rule again.”
Unpack that statement for a second. We ain’t talking about Elizabeth here. Is Madonna willingly handing down her crown, acknowledging “some things can’t be replaced – the realization of a new generation on the eve of imitation.” Or, are the dark verses her making light of comments about her aging out of pop royalty when there’s so much actual unrest in the world?
Either way, this is a unique sound for her and her vocals sound full and rich, as if we were back in the period just before Evita. It’s insane this didn’t make the final cut for the short version of the disc.
(No demo for this one – in fact, it didn’t even make an official release, but was part of the early torrent leaks of the Deluxe edition.)
6. Wash All Over Me
Who am I to decide what should be done
If this is the end then let it come
Let it come, let it rain
Rain all over me
Like the tide, let it flow
Let it wash all over me, over me
Here’s a curious thing about the past decade-and-a-half of Madonna is her ballads – there are barely any! She tends to end each album with something pensive, but it feels like “Frozen” was truly the last mid-album slow song worthy of being a single.
That’s quite a turn from her mid-90s height of balladry which peaked with her releasing a whole LP of slow greatest hits.
I bring this up because “Wash All Over Me” is Madonna and Avicii playing to seemingly-forgotten strengths from her twenty-years-ago ballad mode. But, this is dressed up with all sorts of tricks, like auto-tuned harmony and a wobbly 70s-style synth bass. The soprano chorus even has that throaty warble Madonna employed throughout Like a Prayer when she pushed the top of her chest voice.
On most recent albums this would be relegated to last track status, but here it’s something stronger and more important to the general theme – to be a surviver you have to be iconic, but you also can’t fight time – you have to let it flow around you and keep moving. It feels like a natural successor to “Take a Bow,” and I’ve been waiting too long to write that sentence.
(A mid-stage demo begins with a frantic string section and is… not a ballad? The arrangement is fighting with Madonna’s vocal to try to make this a club song like “Living For Love,” which makes the perfectly good vocal cadences seem clumsy by comparison. (We’ll touch on that again in a second with “Joan of Arc.”) This would have been such a complete misstep! Luckily, they stripped the song back down to the state of its original demo, a piano-only funereal dirge.)
5. Joan of Arc
Each time they take a photograph
I lose a part I can’t get back
I wanna hide
This is the part where I detach
Each time they write a hateful word
Dragging my soul into the dirt
I wanna die
Never admitted but it hurts
I don’t wanna talk about it right now
Just hold me while I cry my eyes out
I’m not Joan of Arc, not yet
But I’m in the dark yeah
I can’t be a superhero right now
Even hearts made out of steel can break down
I’m not Joan of Arc, not yet
I’m only human
It pains me to not have this song ranked first, because even as an imperfect work of production it’s one of Madonna’s best songs. It is co-written by Toby Gad (co-writer of John Legend’s “All of Me”) and MoZella, one of my favorite young songwriters of the past decade (she wrote “Wrecking Ball”).
The opening verse is one of my favorite Madonna elements I’ve heard in the past decade. A gently arpeggiated pair of acoustic guitars chime precisely as Madonna sings in a beautiful “You Must Love Me” voice. “Each time they take a photograph I lose a part I can’t get back – I wanna hide. This is the part where I detach.” The aural equivalent of a lens flare glistens across that last line.
Every time I hear this song I DIE. Her vocals are the best they are on the entire disc, the arrangement is novel and almost alarming in its simplicity and prettiness – she never allowed anything on Music or American Life to get this pretty.
Yet, it’s imperfect. The chorus accelerates to a double-time beat that transforms the song a vague, mid-tempo affair you might hear on pop radio and instantly forget. Like, Natasha Bedingfield? All of her songs have always blended into one another for me. The chorus feels like it’s in the wrong key relative to the verse because the vocal never gets bigger to match the dynamic change.
Despite that, it’s an awesome chorus – “I don’t want to talk about it right now, just hold me while I cry my eyes out. I’m not Joan of Arc – not yet, but I’m in the dark. I can’t be a superhero right now. Even hearts made out of steel can break down.”
For something so conceptual with so many words, it hangs together perfectly. It never feels silly or shoehorned. The song feels incredibly worked-over, shined, and perfected … which makes the chorus change-up all the more annoying. It’s not bad or song-ruining by any stretch of the imagination – keep in mind, this is an album that features “S.E.X.” and “Holy Water.” Despite my misgivings, it probably positions this as a single better than leaving it as a straight ballad.
(The demo is perfection – it keeps the folk ballad vibe for the chorus, and because the feel doesn’t change so abruptly it doesn’t feel like it needed to shift melodically upward. All that’s missing is the harmony on “right now.” I wonder if they changed it just because of the leak. Despite losing a couple of production polish elements on the verses, this is a must-download. Google it immediately.)
4. Rebel Heart [on Deluxe version]
I’ve spent some time as a narcissist
Hearing the others say “Look at you, look at you!”
“Trying to be so provocative”
I said “Oh yeah, that was me!”
“All of the things I did just to be seen”
This is a lovely little gem co-written by Avicii. It is a musical crime that it is not on the standard version of the album. It’s the title cut!
Madge goes to her ultra-self-referential place with the opening lines, “I live my life like a masochist, hearing my father say I told you so, told you so – why can’t you be like the other girls?” Yet, unlike some “Bitch, I’m Madonna” types of songs (see, we’ve got a name for a whole genre, now), this one manages to celebrate being different. It’s novel and catchy, a duet of acoustic guitar, strings, an aerobic bass line (on an actual bass, not a synth!), and finger snaps.
My one beef with this song happens in the first second and keeps happening: the ultra-clipped kick drum. Why, Madonna? It ruins the entire song by making it uncomfortable to listen to – as if your sub-woofer is blown. Plus it interferes with both her vocals and the bass line.
As a result, I’m grading this one on a bit of a curve based on its pair of demos, which I can fall back on when the main version makes my ears ache.
(I prefer the middle-stage demo of this tune, which was the first leak I heard. It was much more of an Avicii track. I can imagine that’s why Madonna changed it further. It featured a more prominent acoustic guitar along with a tambourine, a less pushed kick drum, and a charming little muted electric riff that I am convinced references something from True Blue. Dressed up with strings it doesn’t sound like anything Madonna has touched previously, except for maybe “Dear Jesse.” An even earlier demo is a delightful unplugged take – pure acoustic guitar, bass, and tambourine.)
3. Two Steps Behind Me [demo]
Never gonna be me, just a wannabe-me
Here we go again, in your fantasy
You can try it all but you can’t be me
You can walk the walk, even talk the talk
But you’ll always be two steps behind me
A demo-only tune in the top three? Really? Yes, really. Google this shit right now to understand why. I’ll wait.
“Two Steps Behind Me” is fierce kiss-off to pop imitators. It sounds like it came from the same session as “Alone With You” and thematically pairs perfectly with “Queen.” We haven’t heard Madonna unleash this amount of vitriol on someone other than a lover in a long time. I can’t even think of an example!
The melody hooks in this song are fantastic – the chorus is magnetic and instantly memorable, which is hard to say about anything ranked lower on this list. All this is missing is a replacement for its generic two-beat drum, but in a way it’s better like this – it’s bare, yet still perfectly identifiable as Madonna.
I can understand why this song got left off – it’s too easy to read it as a barb aimed at Lady Gaga (“Did you study me hard enough, trying to be a boss?”) and probably not worth all the media drama over it. I can imagine it was in the running late into the end of last year until Madonna got gun-shy after she saw the big deal made over the much more oblique “Bad Blood” that T-Swift aimed at K-Perry.
When it all falls, when it all falls down
I’ll be your fire when the lights go out
When there’s no one, no one else around
We’ll be two souls in a ghosttown
This song is amazing and I am overjoyed that Madonna is shooting a video for it this week to be the second single from the record. This is the kind of sound that can take her to the top of the charts in the the fourth decade of her career. Cher changed things up, too.
“Ghosttown” feels a bit like Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic with it’s solemn, hymnal verses, big drum thump, and hyperbolic choruses. (Surprisingly, it is not an Avicii co-write – it was a commissioned co-write with the pens behind Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty”).
Madonna sounds incredible. She employs a thick, syrupy mezzo vocal on the verses that is slightly fucked-with via auto-tune and a piercing-but-not-shrill higher vocal with vibrato on the chorus.
The lyrics conflate the personal with the global, intermingling the apocalypse with falling out of love. When Madonna proclaims, “When it all falls down,” it’s hard to know if she means personal trust or the global economy. That’s the best kind of apocalypse song, and it forms a beautifully gray arc to a “Madonna-as-Mad-Max” story along with “Queen,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Nothing Lasts Forever,” and even “HeartBreakCity.”
The overblown kick drum makes a return here, but in the context of the massive chorus it sounds just right. Madge does her own “ahh” backing vocals with no auto-tuning. She sings all the little repeated phrases like “when it all falls, when it all falls” rather than playing them as a sample or echo. A major-to-minor bridge slows things down to a single synth organ, and when she comes back for a gentle, mixed voice refrain at the end you can almost hear the crowd cheering in the background. (I wasn’t imagining it.)
(No demo of this one! I refuse to believe she wrote it and put it together after the demo-leak, so either she bought it outright from one of her co-writers or it got called up from the minor leagues and polished purely because it hadn’t been teased.)
1. Body Shop
I hear you work at a body shop
I hear you work at a body shop
You can keep it overnight
You can do whatever you like
Working on the line
I struggled mightily with which of the top five songs should be #1 on this list.
I keep coming back to the fact that this song is fucking brilliant despite its tired “women as vehicles” metaphor and a handful of inelegant lyrics. Unlike a few other songs undone by odd choices, here they just get swept up in the sound. It feels incredibly Madonna yet doesn’t sound quite like anything else she’s ever done. (It’s another Gad/MoZella co-write.)
The arrangement is a two-note sitar guitar riff surrounded by a variety of rhythms including tapping, clapping, and full drums. That’s mostly it. Eventually we get some humming synths (think “Rain”) to dress it up, but I’m more interested in the occasional discordant guitar strum in the middle of the chorus.
Madonna is singing in a sweet mixed voice as drowned in reverb as she was on “Borrowed Time.” Despite the reverb, the lyrics are coherent thanks to the sparse arrangement. Every time she croons, “I hear you work at a body shop,” it’s a wistful wish that a good man can fix her even though she knows it’s a lie.
It’s the most unusual and lovely thing Madonna has produced in years, it doesn’t fit in with a single other thing on the record, and she is insane if she doesn’t push it hard to adult contemporary radio.
(The demo plays up the plucks and various background strums, including an acoustic throb below the chorus that you can hardly hear in the final version. There’s also a bit of piano and background counter-melody. It’s actually a more interesting arrangement on the whole, but it gives away the gloss that makes the final cut so compelling.)