In 2001, Madonna was still very much riding the wave of what could be called her ‘second coming’. ‘Ray of Light’ and ‘Music’ had re-established her position as a still influential, global pop-star who could simultaneously top singles and albums charts whilst having the critical elite eat from the palm of her hand. When the earnest and quasi-political American Life stalled in 2003 and became her lowest selling album to date, Madonna re-evaluated her stance and the next 3 albums saw her regularly declare ‘a return to the dance floor’. Bar the disco-opus of 2005’s Confessions On a Dancefloor, this saw a steady decline in songwriting and a further drop in sales for each subsequent release.
Rebel Heart then is not a return to the dance floor, its considerable running time unusually contains almost an album’s worth of ballads and mid-tempos. More than anything, it is Madonna’s most explicit attempt at recreating the sound of the pop princesses of the day. Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea and their homogenised yet skilful brand of urban-pop can be heard via Rebel Heart’s myriad of producers which include Avicii, Kanye West, Diplo and Blood Diamonds. At its heart are Madonna’s considerable songwriting skills, an all too frequently overlooked and a crucial factor into her best albums successes.
Rebel Heart’s track-listing sums up its themes: ‘S.E.X’, ‘Holy Water’, ‘Iconic’, ‘Joan of Arc’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Unapologetic Bitch’. In her own simplistic language, Madonna is commenting on the legacy of Madonna, colluding with her own mythology. There is a tremendous amount of looking back here, musically and lyrically, to the point where the oddly macabre sounding ‘Veni Vedi Vici’ sees Madonna drawl through her own songs titles ( ‘I justified my love, I made you say a little prayer‘) with a brass riff reminiscent of ‘Holiday’. Excruciatingly on-the-nose and featuring a guest feature from Nas in which he bad mouths Kelis, it is not the celebration it could have been.
‘S.E.X’ and ‘Holy Water’ should have also been great. This is Madonna after all and her sexuality has been a near-constant driving force of her artistry, creative output and cultural significance since ‘Burning Up’ in 1983, but both tracks, adequately enough produced by West, are childish and regressive. ‘S.E.X’, in particular, is uninventive melodically and stagnant lyrically (‘Oh my God, you’re so hot. Hold my head, let me get on top‘), with Madonna’s experiences over the last 30 years accounting for little more than what reads like a teen diary entry. The marginally better ‘Holy Water ‘, co-written with UK singer Natalia Kills, includes a sudden and gratuitous tacked-on sample of ‘Vogue’ for no apparent reason other than well, it’s one of Madonna’s best ever songs. ‘Best Night’, sounding like a Timbaland production from the Hard Candy sessions, transposes ‘Justify My Love’ onto its whispered bridge.,
The few all-out dance tracks are split between ‘Living For Love’, which attempts to be all things to everyone and in particular ‘Like A Prayer’ but falls flat where a chorus should go and the near novelty track ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’, which is at least funny and features intriguing and by-turns grating sonic textures from UK producer SOPHIE. ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ sees Diplo assign an ordinary reggae backing to a song that Rihanna might have recorded 4 albums back. The remainder of Rebel Heart is quieter, and while not especially introspective, there is a welcome and all-too-rare intimacy that sees Madonna genuinely re-engaging with her greatness again. ‘Ghosttown’ is a quiet-loud, quality power ballad that could belong to either Beyonce or Taylor Swift but instead Madonna, sounding disconcertingly like Karen Carpenter, brings a lightness and warmth that is unexpected and moving. The breezy ‘Joan of Arc’ may attempt vulnerability, but its real strength is in a superbly constructed song that sticks like taffy but never irritates.
A brooding and distorted electronic bass finally gives way to a bashing mid-tempo hip-hop beat, serenading Madonna’s clear up-front vocal on the gorgeous and nurturing ‘Inside Out’. (‘I want to know what you’re all about, you’re beautiful when you’re broken down, let your walls crumble to the ground‘) informs one of her best choruses ever. Sitar-strummed and like an R&B swaddled Bollywood ballad, ‘Body Shop’ is probably the most idiosyncratic and sonically strange moment on Rebel Heart. While it’s not her best moment lyrically with Madonna comparing her body to car parts in need of a tune-up, the beautiful and romantic middle-eight however soars and entrances. Madonna saves the weightiest moment until last, maybe in fact symbolising some significant finality. ‘Who am I to decide what should be done? If this is the end let it come, let it rain all over me‘, ‘Wash Over Me’ is melodically and vocally imperious, lyrically ambiguous and joins ‘Live to Tell’, ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ and ‘Drowned Word/Substitute for a Love’ as one of her most vulnerable and affecting songs.
In 2015, it is difficult to know how to approach a new Madonna album with listeners hoping for something that is innovative but reassuringly identifiable from what is essentially a massive and established brand. Her best albums have all been one-on-one collaborations with relatively little known musicians, well-documented small scale and intimate sessions. With ‘Like A Prayer’, her first major taste of credible recognition, it was Patrick Leonard, the reclusive William Orbit and Mirwais on ‘Ray of Light’ and ‘Music’ respectively, and electronic music-nerd Stuart Price on ‘Confessions On a Dancefloor’. These environments helped construct a trust where Madonna could experiment and flourish creatively and not see her record sales suffer. Rebel Heart is in part a very good album but not a fantastic one. For all of the references to her own musical past, Madonna seems less confident in how she defines and fits into the now: a frustrating situation that can betray the essential point of Madonna and what will continue to be her ongoing legacy.