Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the rest of the "shock" troops -- they never seem quite as labored and overwraught until we hear a new Madonna album. A good one, that is. When reminded of the effortless ease with which Madonna Louise Ciccone (and her usual bevy of producers) spins and slings dance-pop, both the pure fluff and the more serious stuff, the other ladies suddenly sound like they're running to stand still.
Madonna, 53, certainly has tried too hard many times herself; in fact, that's largely what she's been doing for the last decade, giving us the somber dud that was "American Life" (2003), the tired retreads of "Confessions on a Dance Floor" (2005), the embarrassingly oversexed (even for Madonna) generic disco of "Hard Candy" (2008). But when she lets us catch a little glimpse of the woman behind the brand, she usually scores on every level.
"MDNA" is also significantly better than we've been led to believe. The bright but banal Super Bowl performance, the string of surprisingly weak singles preceding the full-length, her directorial film debut ("W.E.") -- you'd be forgiven a healthy fear that Madge has spread herself too thin for the sake of satisfying the latest line item in her pioneering, $120 million deal with Live Nation announced in 2007. "MDNA," though, despite a rough start, is a revved up emotional roller coaster full of pop both sunny and bleak, all of it squarely engineered for the dancefloor.
Since the appearance of "Hard Candy," Madonna and her husband, filmmaker Guy Ritchie, divorced. This is not an idle fact here -- it's a thread tangled and knotted throughout the album. Madonna is moody, Madonna is mad, Madonna is forlorn and Madonna is sad. Skip the utterly forgettable first track and latest single (the cliché-ridden, Madonna-by-numbers "Girl Gone Wild") and dive into the ice water of "Gang Bang," a glitchy, downtempo techno throw-down that's a wholly different dancefloor confession -- the kind detectives wheedle out in interrogation rooms. After expressing her desire to shoot her lover in the head, Madonna gleefully, sinisterly snarls, "I wanna see him die / over and over and over and over ..."
The rest of "MDNA" is dark, but not that dark. In "Love Spent," she calls out a former lover as a pure gold digger with some cutting lines: "I guess if I was your treasury / you'd have found the time to treasure me." (One percenters need love, too!) But in no time, Madonna loses herself in her own chemically induced euphoria, which she sings "feels like a drug and I can't get enough" ("I'm Addicted," a whirling synth gem that should have been a single). Ever the tortured Catholic, she prays for guidance ("hail Mary, full of grace," in "I'm a Sinner"), and eventually concludes, over a hard, comforting dance beat and in a sing-speak voice perilously close to actual rapping, "I'm gonna be OK / I don't care what the people say" ("I Don't Give A").
We don't come to Madonna for the words, of course, nor have her vocals ever been a magnetic attraction. But both are full of grace throughout the William Orbit-produced "Falling Free," a stark ballad in which Madonna's voice is nearly unprocessed, naked, vulnerable and accompanied by see-sawing, Mellotron-like keyboards, strings and chiming bells. It's a beautiful song, with words hinting that she's seen her ray of light at the end of her dark despair.
The selection of singles has been confounding. The Martin Solveig-produced "I Don't Give A" is wobbly, but not the worst. As mentioned, "Girl Gone Wild" is anything but wild, and "Give Me All Your Luvin'" even admits "every record sounds the same" before promising change: "you've got to step into my world." But it's not exactly change we can believe in. A slight fixation on the Reagan era of her own heyday results in some of "MDNA's" worse moments (the Toni Basil cheerleading theme of "Give Me All Your Luvin'," the Cyndi Lauper quotations in "Girl Gone Wild") and better ones; the daydreamy vocals of "Turn Up the Radio" are free of too many 21st-century tweaks. That she still believes in the emotional power of radio is either a sign of adorable nostalgia or an artist who's more out of touch than she sounds. Either way, "MDNA" is a trip worth taking.