Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Album Review: 'Rebel Heart' by Madonna (THREE STARS*)

Back in January when I read that Madonna's leaky new album had anywhere from 19 to 25 songs on it, my first thought was to panic. (You know what they say about "MDNA" flashbacks.) Then I recalibrated, realizing two-dozen songs increased the odds that there would be a few I liked, as was already the case with "Ghosttown," which came out in the Christmas batch of early releases. Over the weekend, after dozens of demos, unfinished and never-finished tracks have worked their way into the world, Madonna's 13th studio album officially came out. And while the odds of loving 25 new songs by a past-their-prime-but-longtime-favorite artist are slim to zero for anyone, the news is good,

After reading my pal According to G's exhaustive review -- which even compares the finished tracks to the unfinished leaks and reviews the ones that never saw the light of day -- and others, I found the most interesting parts weren't always the catty takedowns of the songs one doesn't like, but the shared joy of the ones that you do. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to give my feelings on each song -- then bold-facing the ones I'd have picked to build a near-perfect(*) new album.

Have a read, then let me know which "Rebel" tunes warm your "Heart."

"Living for Love"
By no means bad, but it sounds more like something that was crafted by a professional songwriter -- or six -- for someone who doesn't generally write their own material, like Cher. Just a bit generic for a lead single from Madonna, whose signature seems to be completely missing here.

"Devil Pray"
This one's OK -- sort of reminiscent of "I Deserve It" -- although the part where she rattles off drugs kinda makes me cringe.

Wow. Just wow. The first time I heard this one I nearly fell out of my chair. Easily one of her best tracks of the past 20 years -- a post-apocalyptic love song for the ages. Truly a masterpiece -- this should have been the album's first single.  (Horrified to just read two of its cowriters were born in '83!)

"Unapologetic Bitch"
The title -- and the fact that there are at least three songs on this album I can think of off the top of my head that feature the word "bitch" -- had my defenses up, but this one's the winner. With its reggae beat and infectious chorus, no apology required.

Like my girl Debbie Harry, Madonna has gotten into the unfortunate habit of rapping on all of albums. Sadly, this one's more "American Life" than "Rapture." (And would you believe its repetitive refrain is even worse than the rapping part?)

"Bitch, I'm Madonna"
Collaborating with Nicki Minaj didn't work the first time -- nor did self-referencing -- so not sure why she tried again. The vocals are so processed it's hardly recognizable as being a Madonna song -- is that why she keeps reminding the listener: "Bitch, I'm Madonna!" -- and with Britney Spears so associated with the "bitch" intro, it's even more perplexing.

"Hold Tight"
Cute and catchy, but nothing special. (Make a bonus track?)

"Joan of Arc"
This one's so pretty and infectious -- with the best gear shift since Carly Simon had clouds in her coffee -- that you'll almost overlook the fact that she's comparing herself to a saint. Almost.

Considering it features Mike Tyson, it's not nearly as bad as I'd have expected. Working in the Ali reference helps, but are "i can" and "icon" two letters apart or one?

Maybe not a classic, but this piano-driven breakup anthem is just the kind of song I'd love to see Madonna sing on a never-gonna-happen "Unpluggd" tour. Maybe in 2025? 

"Body Shop"
Sure, the lyrics are desperately in need of a Caffey-Wiedlin overhaul. But this one's Madonna's sweetest and more playful song in ages, harkening back to "True Blue" and "Cherish." (She actually sounds like she's having fun!) Madonna + sitar = magic. Love, love, love.

"Holy Water"
Although I'd been warned, it turns out bracing myself for a song about pussy juice wasn't enough -- this album's got two. "Holy Water" also features the b-word -- "bitch, get off my pole" -- but the chorus is pretty catchy, so you might still get off even if it didn't do the trick for me.

"Inside Out"
Nothing groundbreaking, another good chorus makes it worthwhile. (Make a bonus track?)

"Wash All Over Me"
Fine, if not a tad boring. Sort of a low-rent "Dear Jesse."

"Best Night"
A welcome shift in tempo, but this more urban-flavored track could have been a "Bedtime Stories" b-side at best -- and I'd have rather had "Love Won't Wait" or "Freedom" back then.

"Veni Vidi Vici"
Perhaps better in theory than execution. But this reflective track -- with its "I came, I saw, I conquered" refrain -- is an interesting move from someone who hates nostalgia. Maybe that's why she had to nearly ruin it with a completely unnecessary screaming fit by Nas.

Oh, dear. The album's one true stinker. No, not because a woman of a certain age is singing about sex. Because it's a collection of single entendres that make a Real Hotwife of Orlando seem clever -- this time she's "soaking wet" -- and then a spoken list of sexually related items read by what sounds like Carol Channing. Truly undeserving of inclusion here.

Perfunctory ballad.

"Rebel Heart"
Sweet -- and I like the guitar work. Sure, everything it does "Joan of Arc" does better. But any time Madonna is willing to look back, I'm willing to hear her out. 

"Beautiful Scars"
Something about the tempo and arrangement of this one makes me think of early-era Madonna, which is to say I like it.

Where do I begin here? Madge's most epic and chilling song of all time -- an imaginary telling of the assassination of the Queen of England -- that is truly sublime. Walter Cronkite got goosebumps in his grave. I might even let her have the accent back. 

"Borrowed Time"
Madonna covers some familiar ground here -- love not peace, make every moment count, etc. -- but the idea that life is short has a bit more resonance at this stage in her career.

"Graffiti Heart"
You can bet your Rubik's Cube this '80s-inspired love song works for me.

"Autotune Baby"
OK, I set out to not make too much of an issue out of which songs were included on the "main" album versus the "deluxe" album and the "super deluxe" album, but are you f**king kidding me here? "Autotune Baby" is not only one of the album's finest moment, it's Madonna's catchiest song since "Music." This is especially noteworthy considering the titular "autotune baby" that cries periodically during the track is the most annoying thing ever, yet I'm still completely hooked on whoever came up with this hook -- pure pop perfection.
Yeah, all wrapped up, I wanna be your little baby now / Put my head on your shoulder You can rock me, rock me now / In the middle of the night you can hear me crying loud / Put my head on your shoulder and rock me
A plaintive, guitar-driven ode to "the one that got away." Maybe not my favorite, but this'd be a No. 1 hit if Miley Cyrus recorded it, yet it languishes as a "super bonus" track here. Truly makes no sense.

So there you have it. The comments section is wide open -- I only ask that you click on the Name/URL option and at least put your first name. I'm eager to hear what you think of Madonna's new album, which is arguably her best since "Music."

UPDATE: It's been brought to my attention that the exact version of the album I am reviewing may not be for sale on iTunes, but I assure you this was purchased from a completely legitimate Ukrainian website.


Donny said...

Nice review! You aren't the only one saying there's a 10 or 11 song masterpiece in here but overall, it's still a damn good album. I'm confused why you included "Queen" and "Autotune Baby", though. Neither song is on any version.

Geoffrey said...

Nice review and thanks for the shout out. :)

Paulie said...

I completely agree with you that Ghosttown should have been the album's lead single, it's totally superior than the other songs...Joan Of Arc and Rebel Heart were also quite catchy.

Frank said...

Queen is on my iTunes version and I also love it. I thought it was about Princess Di. No?

I think you should re listen to Messiah. I think the arrangements and the lyrics are pretty brilliant.

Have you heard the gorgeous "tragic girl"? To me, this is the stand out leak track that should be a #1 single. It's up there with Rain in terms of her ballads. It's honest, heartbreaking and truly beautifully arranged.

alex said...

Queen is amazing. i love that u loved it

Unknown said...

To me this album cannot be "graded". The thing about Madonna is no one seems to like every album/era. Some like her early stuff, some like her TB/LAP stuff some prefer the harshness of Erotica but not the softness of BS. Some like her electronic Earth Mother of ROL but not the guitar/folksy AL. Everybody has their favorite sound and favorite of Madonna's many personalities. This album presents something for everyone but not everything for everyone. Some people think there's too much sex and bravado, some think there's too much balladry, some like the fun songs, so prefer the serious songs. I like them all and think I will grow to appreciate the songs I may like less than others when I am in a different mindset. My point is, this collection of songs has about 14 songs everybody will love but they may not be the same 14 songs. Any grade people give will also be reflective, in part, of the stuff they don't like, while every will agree it has more great songs on it than maybe any other of her albums. People need to focus on what they like, which it has in spades, not what THEY don't like because every Madonna fan is being served at this table!

Denis said...

I'm glad someone else likes Queen. Early on it was kind of WTF song more me, but now I really love it. Much like Ghosttown and Wash All Over Me, it's kind of an apocalyptic song where she's really struggling to find her place in the world. So, I think the death of the Queen is a metaphor for Madonna herself.
"Who will take her place?
It's written on everyone's face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can't be replaced
The realization of a new generation
On the eve of imitation
All gone, overthrown"

Unknown said...

The article you link to is garbage IMO. He claims to be a fan (to be fair, he says he loves to hate her), says there are spots of the old Madonna in the album and then proceeds to eviscerate the album. Anybody that dismisses a song because it is a ballad or says "yawn" about a song because they cannot empathize with lyrics is not much of a writer/reviewer. If he was ever a fan he isn't any more. Maybe he (she?) is bitter because while they claim Madonna isn't as good as she used to be the truth is THEY aren't the people they used to be. They are no longer young in body or at heart, they no longer hear music with the same perspective or open mindedness as they used to. NO artist is going to sound the same way for thir entire career (save Kenny G). If you are going to be a fan you have to go on the journey they take you on, for all its bumps and side trips, and enjoy where they take you. If you are going to sit on the sidelines and be bitter and complain then don't pretend to be a fan or be interested in what they do. If all you are going to do is tear them down save that for her enemies.

Dean said...

I agree with most of your choices. My favorite so far is "Queen."

I'm little confused by one of your references though. I haven't read the actual lyrics to "Iconic", but every time I listen to it I hear "I can't, Icon, two letters apart..." meaning you can be an "I can't" or an "Icon." If it is "I can" then it doesn't make much sense, but I still like the song.

Unknown said...

Is it just me or does Autotune Baby- Madonna sound (unfortunately) like Paula Abdul?

Unknown said...

I agree with Dean in that I thought it was I can't but from the lyrics I've read it is I can (but to be fair Madonna's "official" lyrics are not always accurate).

Ken said...

I find the album a little scattered, but do like certain tracks a great deal. “Ghosttown" is my favorite on the album, but I do like "Bitch, I’m Madonna” also. “Queen" and "Autotune Baby" are not on my version from iTunes either… and I bought the deluxe version… How do I get them?

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

@Ken: Send me your email address and I will get them to you.