It’s been a curious journey from 2012’s MDNA to Rebel Heart. It began with Madonna – the last bastion of icy old-school detachment – embracing social media like a needy socialite. Her Instagram of doom was soon clogged up with misspellings, silly ‘street’ terms and a worrying amount of close ups of her newly acquired ‘grill’. Then came the Twitter take over, the visit to the Facebook offices, the Reddit AMA, the Snapchat debut, the Grindr promotion, an endless stream of bite-sized Madge content as if to make sure to keep her name in the mix of the mosquito-like online collective consciousness.
Madonna is not one to go anywhere quietly. In her downright infuriating fashion she will never do what is expected of her. This artistic integrity and gambling with her audience’s hearts usually pays off, when fans squealed for more of the wonky-techno of Music she dished up a dose of painful reality with the darkly soulful American Life. She gave the pop world something they didn’t know they needed with the disco-dynamism of Confessions on a Dancefloor, she strutted through the crowd untouchable, one perfectly shod foot always ahead of the game.
Which is why it’s difficult to comprehend the trajectory of these past few years, from 2008’s ill-judged foray into ‘urban-pop’ (Hard Candy) onwards, these albums can almost be seen as a timeline of Madonna in flux. Whereas the brilliance of the Ray of Light, American Life and Confessions… albums were created through intense relationships between Madonna and two producers (or fewer) to craft a solid cohesive piece of work, the shambolic Hard Candy by contrast was made with a selection box of six producers and this collective pick and mix has widened over the years.
Rebel Heart boasts a total of nine personalities other than Madonna’s, from Diplo to Ariel Rechtschaid to Avicii. As an album, it’s an overcrowded, chaotic space with each producer adding their style to the mix to the point that it suffers from musical ADHD. Madonna described the difficulties with these working relationships in a Rolling Stone interview stating that her various young producer’s attention spans were so childishly low that it made it hard for them to focus and settle into a groove. Sadly there is no groove to get into on Rebel Heart.
Forget the effervescent joy of opener ‘Living for Love’. Forget its dance-floor trembling bass, sizzling keyboard and electro whirl, forget the ‘Like a Prayer’-style choir and the uplifting moments of pure euphoria so brilliantly ignited by Diplo, this is not the lifeblood that Rebel Heart pumps. This is not a Madonna dance floor thumper or an emotional brain pounder. Instead, it’s a badly stitched together patchwork quilt of an album made up of various shades of a caricature of Madonna.
There is the scary cartoon character on tracks like ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ and ‘Unapologetic Bitch’, the angry matriarch who sounds like she’s in a pathetic hip-hop feud with herself and then there is the tabloid version of ‘sexy’ Madonna on the awkward ‘Holy Water’ and ‘S.E.X’. And let’s not forget spiritual Madge on the more contemplative tracks like ‘Wash All Over Me’ and ‘Messiah’. None of these ring true, they sound like a pastiche of former glories or an embarrassment to be erased. Can it be so long ago where words like “Tell the bed not to lay/Like the open mouth of a grave” were placed in her mouth, are songs like the raw, bloodied blues of ‘X-Static Process’ and ‘Gone’ a thing of the distant past?
On Rebel Heart she sounds content to play charades with a basement full of sniggering, smoked-out teen boys listening to the cool Mom spit stuff like ‘Bitch get off my pole’ and ‘Jesus loves my pussy best’. The fact that the abysmal ‘Holy Water’ references the immaculate ‘Vogue’ only makes it more depressing and apparent that a song as carefree and stylish as it would have been drowned in the macho river of testosterone rolling throughout Rebel Heart, an album that sees Madonna sample renowned feminist Mike Tyson on the Nike-ad trash of ‘Iconic’.
There are brief moments of brilliance, the grown-up chilliness of the glacial ‘Ghosttown’, the gentle Erotica-esque sensuality of ‘Body Shop’, the simple sweetness of ‘Joan of Arc’. The smart shuffle of ‘Hold Tight’ with its soaring synths and skittering beats shows what an exclusive Diplo/Madonna partnership could have yielded but musically it bounces schizophrenically around each collaborator.
A Madonna album works best when there is a clear stylistic approach that sews each track together seamlessly but like its predecessor MDNA, Rebel Heart is more of a disjointed affair- perfect for the one track streaming Spotifiers. It moves from Avicii’s cheap brand of barn dance rave on the ‘House of the Rising Sun’ aping ‘Devil Pray’ to the Gwen Stefani b-side cod-reggae of ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ before the truly awful Kanye comedy of ‘Illuminati’. There are ‘star’ turns from Nicki Minaj and Nas which solidifies the feeling that the production on this album could be for anyone. The crew assembled for Rebel Heart have created an identikit sound made to fit around any blank starlet from Rihanna to Miley, in its two-step fits all nature. These are not the kind of producers that can bend Madonna into original origami shapes but are instead the lazy kind that serve up lukewarm leftovers of the past.
This is not what Madonna should settle for. She is at a time in her musical life where she should be making her ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. She should be creating her Grace Jones style moment of dark, domineering pop. It’s time for her to ditch the wunderkind producers and their zeitgeisty ways and put that rebel heart to good use reminding everyone of the fearless, uncompromising, unapologetic bitch we used to know and love.