What’s your favorite flavor of Madonna?
As is usually the case, there are several to choose from on “MDNA,’’ the pop icon’s new release, out Monday.
The one that Madonna seems to have been pushing in the run-up to her album’s release is the most familiar: queen of the dance floor, here to help us boogie our, and more crucially her own, troubles away.
From “Everybody’’ to “Into the Groove’’ to “Music,’’ Madonna has successfully helped us surrender to the transporting catharsis of moving to the beat for nearly 30 years.
So the two test balloon singles sent out as precursors probably felt like sure things, and yet neither was promising. First there was the irritating branding jingle “Give Me All Your Luvin’,’’ with its cheerleading reminder that we “L-U-V’’ Madonna. The more recent “Girl Gone Wild’’ imagines setting a fire but barely generates smoke - it’s an anonymous Ibiza-targeted jam that could have come from anyone from Rihanna to Jennifer Lopez.
It is the same 808 drumbeat she’s been churning out for her last few spins around the club, 2008’s “Hard Candy’’ and 2005’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor.’’ For the diehard members of Madonna’s core fan base, who remain hung up on every little thing that she says or does, that will be just fine.
But, like the drug to which it alludes, a chunk of “MDNA’’ feels more like a pre-fabricated high, one cooked up in a chem lab with collaborators old (William Orbit) and new (Benny Benassi, M.I.A., and Martin Solveig). The often chilly bloodlessness of the buzzing, shimmering, glistening, burping, tremulous synths and her distant, disaffected, reverb-heavy vocals raise a wall between the sentiment of ecstatic celebration and the actual practice of it - it takes some work from the listener to warm them up. Sometimes the album strains to be vibrant, but is merely uptempo.
And a few, like the silly, sing-song trifle “B-Day Song’’ and the bubbly cliche-ridden “I’m Addicted’’ and “Turn Up the Radio’’ feel a lot like filler to justify a “deluxe’’ configuration of the record.
“MDNA’’ isn’t a perfect Madonna album, but it greatly surpasses its immediate predecessors when Madonna cracks that hard candy shell and allows us to get at the gooey emotional center: This is a Madonna who is angry, mournful, occasionally funny, and most of all, specific - at one point, she raps about not having a prenup.
This is a Madonna who is not just sticking to her guns, but unloading them. Sometimes at herself, sometimes at her critics, and, presumably on several pointed songs, at her ex-husband, film director Guy Ritchie.
“I [Expletive] Up’’ dials back the volume and tempo but ratchets up the drama over martial drums and acoustic guitars, as she laments the woulda-coulda-shouldas and owns both her missteps and her “big mouth.’’ (But in admirably Madonna-esque fashion, she claims nobody makes mistakes better than she does.)
But if she is contrite there - and actually recites “Act of Contrition’’ elsewhere in one of “MDNA’’s several religious nods - on “I Don’t Give A,’’ (which features Nicki Minaj) she’s not so sorry: “I tried to be a good girl/ I tried to be your wife/ Diminished myself/ And I swallowed my light/ I tried to become all/ That you expect of me/ And if it was a failure/ I don’t give a . . .’’
(Interestingly, “Act of Contrition’’ isn’t the only callback to Madonna’s past. There are several echoes and allusions to previous songs, including “Lucky Star,’’ “Like a Virgin,’’ “Material Girl,’’ and even “Hanky Panky.’’)
She saves most of her ammunition to unleash on the scathing, superbly titled “Love Spent.’’ Opening with a burbling banjo and segueing into an irresistible marriage of string orchestration and menacing grooves, she worries in retrospect about someone’s romantic motives: “You had all of me, you wanted more/ Would you have married me if I were poor?/ Guess if I was your treasury/ You’d have found the time to treasure me.’’
While some of the album feels alienatingly icy, “Falling Free’’ earns its cool breeze. Co-written by, among others, Madonna’s supremely talented brother-in-law, singer-songwriter Joe Henry, it is a more impressionistic, haunting look at connection featuring one of the best vocals here.
And before it devolves into an awkward repetition of the word “bitch,’’ the rage of “Gang Bang,’’ with its fidgety, fuzzy, Morse code groove, bleeds bright red as Madonna envisions a violent end to the one who did her dirty: “And then I discovered, it couldn’t get worse/ You were building my coffin/ You were driving my hearse.’’
(The album comes in several different configurations, ranging from 11 to 18 tracks. They include a deluxe model, an iTunes exclusive, and a “clean’’ version for Wal-Mart that deletes the tracks “Gang Bang’’ and “I [Expletive] Up.’’)
These songs represent the Madonna of “Oh Father’’ and “Something to Remember’’ and “Don’t Tell Me’’ (also co-written by Henry).
The songs that find her venturing beyond lazy sloganeering and mechanized approximations of joy and into more personal and abstract territory gain power through storytelling, pathos, and smaller strokes of the brush, often without sacrificing the backbeat.
While there is plenty of fun to be had in the primal thumps of the better dance tracks here, it is this more vulnerable Madonna that inspires L-U-V, the one who gets down to the DNA of “MDNA.’’