Madonna was mad, and she had every right to be. But in hindsight, when unfinished demos from her new album, “Rebel Heart,” leaked online in December, it stoked the flames of what the pop star lives by: hype.
The early consensus was that the six new songs she rushed to the market were . . . well, they were good. Really good. And, let’s be honest, that hasn’t always been the overwhelming reaction to her work in recent years.
It wasn’t just skeptics who felt that way, either. Even Madonna is aware of her wobbly track record. In a new interview with Pitchfork, she finished the writer’s sentence when he confessed that he was surprised by her new album and even relieved.
“That you didn’t hate it?” she quipped, and then laughed.
It was a winking acknowledgement of something that even diehard Madonna fans have had to admit: Our patron saint of pop culture is known to stumble. (And I’m not referring to that cape malfunction in London that sent her down a flight of stairs onstage a few weeks ago.)
After months of leaks and speculation, “Rebel Heart” finally arrives on Tuesday, and it is a strong, welcome detour in the artist’s recent discography. Or just call it a return to form since the album is her most satisfying effort in a decade and nimbly connects the dots between Madonna’s various eras and guises.
It works on many levels because it allows Madonna to be the most dynamic character of all, the one she repressed on her previous three studio albums of jittery dance-pop that felt desperate to be viable. Madonna gets to be herself on these new songs, exposing a vulnerability and sincerity we arguably haven’t heard from her since 1998’s “Ray of Light.”
Her softer side is underappreciated, and underexplored by Madonna herself. The most memorable moments on “Rebel Heart” don’t rely on throbbing dance beats or the digital savvy of her hotshot producers (Diplo, Avicii, Kanye West, and Blood Diamonds chief among them). They’re about Madonna’s candid reflections on soured love and what she has learned as she grows into her role of 56-year-old pop auteur.
“Living for Love,” a bright club cut with a joyous chorus to match its message of uplift, recalls early Madonna, right down to the gospel overtones of “Like a Prayer.” “Ghosttown” is emotionally bare and unabashed in the same way Beyoncé’s “Halo” felt both intimate and epic. The chorus is painted by numbers, sure, but it’s still remarkably tender and catchy. (Why it isn’t already in heavy radio rotation is a mystery.)
Over stark chords on an acoustic guitar, “Joan of Arc” reveals something more shocking than Madonna’s usual Molotov cocktail of sex and religion: “Each time they write a hateful word / Draggin’ my soul into the dirt / I wanna die / I never admit it / But it hurts,” she sings. “Even hearts made out of steel can break down.”
The production choices are also fresh and unexpected, from the stuttering electro-folk of “Body Shop” (with her coy vocal that’s nearly unrecognizable) to the piano balladry that underpins “HeartBreakCity” and “Messiah.” Maybe that’s why the album’s more self-conscious songs — the ones meant to remind us that Madonna was the original badass pop star, and she’s still at it — come across as rote and out of place.
For an artist with so much inherent swagger, she espouses far too much braggadocio on “Rebel Heart.” It’s unnecessary and particularly fueled when she teams up with rappers, including Nicki Minaj (“[Expletive] I’m Madonna”), Chance the Rapper (“Iconic”), and Nas (“Veni Vidi Vici,” a self-referential nod to Madonna’s ever-evolving ways).
Like most current pop albums, “Rebel Heart” is overstuffed — the deluxe version swells to 19 songs over 1 hour and 15 minutes — but that’s forgivable when you hear how much she’s stretching here. Madonna is finally figuring out that she can remain relevant simply by being Madonna.
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