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The title of Madonna’s twelfth studio album was announced, tentatively, by the artist herself on television. ‘MDNA’ is, of course, an abbreviation of her own name, taking us back to that eponymous début from 1983. It is also reminiscent of MDMA, the drug with a street name, ‘ecstasy’.

MDNA was recorded in late 2011, after a fairly long break from music following the making of Madonna’s film, W.E.  She worked with a number of producers, including William Orbit, Martin Solveig, and the Benassi Brothers

The album was released in March 2012 in both standard and deluxe formats, with cover photography by Mert and Marcus. On the standard edition, Madonna stands in a red dress, with her arms spread over an unseen record deck; while the deluxe version offers a close-up shot, bequiffed and gazing imperiously.

Inside the CD booklet are more pictures from the session, washed in shades of deepest pink and blue, and filtered through a mirror effect. Some images are airbrushed beyond recognition, but others are imposing, such as one shot where Madonna sits in macho pose, clad in black lingerie and half-smiling, finger in mouth.

MDNA: Standard Edition

‘Girl Gone Wild’ begins where her 1989 album, Like a Prayer, ended: with Madonna, a lapsed Catholic, reciting the Act of Contrition.

The opening track – and second single – is produced by the Benassi Bros, in a style nearly identical to their remix of Madonna’s 2009 song, ‘Celebration.’ Her verses are sung almost robotically, with just a touch of exuberance in the chorus.

The video is filmed by Mert and Marcus in grainy monochrome, with scantily-clad male dancers and S&M imagery, it recalls the ‘Erotica’ video from 1992.

‘Gang Bang’, by contrast, is outstanding. It began as a far tamer song by Mika and William Orbit, but engineer Demo (Demolition Crew) transformed it into an epic revenge fantasy. The title is probably an attempt to distinguish the song from ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’, a hit in the 1960s for Madonna’s forebears, Cher and Nancy Sinatra.

Perhaps ‘Bang Bang (Shoot You Dead)’ might have been more apt, as the phrase ‘Gang Bang’ has little relevance here, other than as an unnecessary bid for controversy. Madonna’s half-whispered, kittenish vocals – rising to a snarl – are a tour de force of B-movie melodrama, and she has named ‘Gang Bang’ as her own favourite cut on the album.

‘I’m Addicted’ is produced by Benassi, with another edgy finish from Demo. It joins a long line of impeccable dance marathons (‘Skin’, ‘Impressive Instant’.) Lyrically, it’s the diary of a woman in love, or on drugs. A breathtaking, rave-struck bridge recalls ‘Future Lovers’, and Madonna’s vocals are intimately sexy, without ever trying too hard.

‘Turn Up the Radio’ is the third single. A pared-down, guitar-led performance showcases her MDNA Tour, though the album edit is more club-friendly. Producer Martin Solveig adopts a tune-in, tune-out radio effect previously used in Madonna’s ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Hung Up’.

The theme of music as liberation is one Madonna has constantly explored, but there is an added wistfulness in these lyrics and her plaintive vocals, as if yearning for simpler times. A video was filmed in Italy during the MDNA Tour. Photographer Tom Munro directs Madonna, who dances on top of a car.

‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’, also produced by Solveig, was the first single. The lyrics are a hotchpotch of recycled phrases from Madonna’s earlier work. Though infectiously catchy, ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’ is little more than a pale imitation of Madonna’s finest pop – in rather the same way that her Latin-tinged 1987 single, ‘Who’s That Girl’, rehashed her definitive 1986 hit, ‘La Isla Bonita’.

Guest appearances by Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. are also thrown into the mix. The video for ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’ was directed by Megaforce, in high-octane, comic strip style. Released to promote Madonna’s appearance at the US Superbowl, footballers and cheerleaders add to the spectacle.

‘Some Girls’ is the first track on the album to be wholly produced by William Orbit, Madonna’s creative partner on the Emmy-winning Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000.) At first hearing, it has little in common with those ethereal soundscapes.

However, though it may be jarring, ‘Some Girls’ retains the finely textured style that makes Orbit’s work so distinctive. If anything, ‘Some Girls’ recalls ‘She’s Not Me,’ from Madonna’s last album, Hard Candy (2008), and the bitchier numbers from her Erotica period.

Madonna calls out her copycats, whether professional (‘Some girls make a scene/Shoot their mouth and talk obscene/Crying in the limousine’ seems to mock an offstage moment in Lady Gaga’s recent tour documentary); or rather more personal. She also adds in a few phrases from her 1989 dancefloor anthem, ‘Express Yourself’.

‘Superstar’, a treacly confection, features backing vocals from Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes. Lyrically, ‘Superstar’ borrows from ‘Super Pop’, a bonus track from Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005.) Whereas in the earlier song, Madonna compared herself to other icons, ‘Superstar’ is a frothy ode to an unnamed lover.

‘I Don’t Give A’ is produced by Martin Solveig, recreating the R&B vibe of Hard Candy. Madonna’s lyrics are raw and pithy, half-sung, half-rapped. ‘Wake up ex-wife/This is your life,’ she begins, detailing her frantic daily routine under relentless public scrutiny.

In a bridge, she sings ‘I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminished myself/And swallowed my light.’ Rapper Nicki Minaj makes a guest appearance, proclaiming ‘There’s only one queen/And that’s Madonna.’

‘I’m a Sinner’ is the first of four collaborations with William Orbit that close the album. Its psychedelic groove (‘All the boys and the girls/Ride the magic bus tonight’) recalls some of their best work together, such as ‘Ray of Light’ or ‘Amazing’.

‘Like the sun, like the light, like a flame/Like a storm I burst through everything,’ Madonna declares, a force of nature. Even as she sings ‘I’m a sinner, I like it that way,’ she hasn’t sounded so joyous in years. As in ‘Like a Prayer,’ she blends the sensual and divine with heretical ease.

The religious theme intensifies in the latter part of the song as Madonna calls on each of the saints in turn. But her final plea for mercy isn’t to Jesus, but Mother Mary.

‘Love Spent’ is a bittersweet paean to a gold-digging lover, with a banjo undercutting the ice-cool electronica. Madonna is keenly aware that fame and fortune shades all her relationships. ‘Love Spent’ uses money as a metaphor for love lost.

‘You had all of me, you wanted more/Would you have married me if I was poor?’ she asks, then answers herself, ‘I guess if I was your treasury/You’d have found the time to treasure me.’

As the song progresses, sarcasm gives way to vulnerability and heartbreak. Then there is an abrupt change of key as Madonna enacts a late, doomed seduction. ‘I want you to hold me like you hold your money,’ she sings, ‘Hold me in your arms until there’s nothing left.’

The sombre mood deepens with ‘Masterpiece’, a Golden Globe-winning ballad from Madonna’s self-directed W.E. Orbit’s production is uncluttered, with acoustic guitar and drums, and later strings.

The poignancy of ‘Masterpiece’ lies in the emotive power of Madonna’s vocals. Lines like ‘And I’m right by your side/Like a thief in the night/I stand in front of the masterpiece,’ evoke a terrible loneliness. The closing line, ‘After all, nothing’s indestructible,’ is gently devastating.

Falling Free,’ the closing track, is a less conventional ballad, recalling ‘Mer Girl’ and ‘Easy Ride’.  Co-written with Laurie Mayer and Joe Henry, the lyrics fuse the romantic and spiritual: ‘And what you give is what I love/And what you take is just enough.’ Madonna’s angelic vocals are matched by Orbit’s stellar production.

 

MDNA: Deluxe Edition

The deluxe edition CD contains five bonus tracks. ‘Beautiful Killer’, produced by Martin Solveig, was inspired by actor Alain Delon and plays like a sequel to Madonna’s 1999 hit, ‘Beautiful Stranger’.

‘Can’t really talk with a gun in my mouth,’ Madonna sings, ‘Maybe that’s what you’ve been dreaming about.’ She revisits the gunplay of ‘Gang Bang’, from the victim’s perspective. The strings arrangement is reminiscent of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, the melody influenced by the girl-group pop of the 1960s.

‘I Fucked Up’ is co-produced with William Orbit, in a similar style to ‘Masterpiece’. Despite the attention-grabbing title, it is a reflective ballad. ‘I’m so ashamed/You’re in so much pain,’ she confesses. ‘I blamed you when things didn’t go my way.’

With a characteristic mixture of pride and regret, Madonna admits, ‘Maybe I should’ve turned silver into gold/But in front of you I was cold,’ revisiting the narcissistic candour of ‘Nobody’s Perfect’, from Music (2000.)

‘B-Day Song’, produced by Solveig, has a retro feel. Madonna duets with Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. on a light-hearted, singalong number. It’s surprising that two of music’s boldest women would choose such a sugary piece.

‘Best Friend’ is another lament for lost love. ‘Every man that walks through that door/Will be compared to you for ever more,’ Madonna sings. Her vocals are couched within a brittle production by Demolition Crew, recalling ‘Heartbeat’ from Hard Candy, but in a much darker vein.

The final track is the so-so ‘Party Rock’ remix of ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’, featuring label-mates LMFAO, as performed at the Superbowl. Fans who pre-ordered MDNA on i-Tunes were also treated to an acoustic arrangement of ‘Love Spent’, produced by William Orbit.

‘Girl Gone Wild’ Syndrome

Following Madonna’s triumphant performance at the Superbowl, MDNA was released to favourable reviews and high early sales, which nonetheless quickly slumped. MDNA has received little promotion from Madonna, who had already begun rehearsing for a new tour. In an interactive era, this has left fans feeling disengaged.

The singles have made little impact on the charts, largely because at 53, Madonna is considered ‘too old’ for inclusion on mainstream radio playlists. In any case, neither ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’ or ‘Girl Gone Wild’ represent Madonna at her finest. They seem too calculated an attempt to please an already saturated youth market.

If Madonna’s singles are now primarily intended to showcase an album, it might be worth considering stronger tracks like ‘Love Spent’, ‘I’m Addicted’ or ‘I’m a Sinner’ for possible release. The award-winning ‘Masterpiece’ got some radio play, and shows a more contemplative side to Madonna.

Although the MDNA Tour is, at time of writing, in its early stages, several tracks from the album are imaginatively staged. Madonna performs ‘Gang Bang’ in a motel room set, dressed to kill like a Russ Meyer movie heroine. And she evokes the almost operatic coda of ‘I Don’t Give A’ while lying on an altar, bathed in red light.

MDNA, Madonna’s first studio album since her long relationship with Warner Bros ended, is distributed by Interscope. After three decades in the industry, Madonna seems less focused on music, though her love of performance remains.

As a pop star, Madonna’s peers are mostly under 30. Because singers like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have all followed her trail, Madonna’s unique legacy has sometimes been undervalued.

The bubblegum pop of the two lead singles belie torrents of rage, despair, and finally hope that run through MDNA. If its predecessor can be viewed through the prism of Madonna’s second divorce, MDNA reflects its aftermath and her ongoing recovery.

The expanded albums of today allow listeners to rearrange track listings, delete lesser songs, and create a more personal version. The disadvantage with this process is that albums can seem rather crowded.

There is a sense, on MDNA, that Madonna tried so hard to please each section of her huge fanbase that sometimes her own vision was lost. Also, perhaps ‘too many cooks’ were involved in MDNA, as some of the production seems rushed, and Madonna’s voice over-processed.

Of the bonus tracks on MDNA, ‘Beautiful Killer’, ‘I Fucked Up,’ and ‘Best Friend’, are, for me, good enough to be on the standard version – more substantial than ‘Girl Gone Wild,’ ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’ or ‘Superstar’.  

As with Hard Candy, Madonna veers between chasing past glories, and embracing the present. MDNA lacks the cohesion of her greatest albums, which may suggest she is still at a crossroads – but it also shows that it would be foolish to write her off in future.

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