The melodic magic and sunny sixties retro-vibe of William Orbit finds guitar-laden salvation in ‘I’m A Sinner’ – a swirling pop song that will challenge anyone not to move along to it. Both silly and serious religious references find her back in the church setting, only she’s preaching the gospel of the groove, testifying to the beat, confessing in the glory of the other kind of rapture – and here is where the album soars, almost matching the spiritual abandon of ‘Like A Prayer’. ‘Sinner’ is rife with whispered Hail Marys and a list of saintly men, before the singer cheekily challenges, “All the saints and holy men/ Catch me before I sin again”. Who else but a woman named Madonna, a woman who burst onto the scene looking and acting nothing like a virgin, could so stand up to such iconic religious figureheads? She does it all with an irresistible hook and beat to boot, and ‘I’m A Sinner’ is an engaging song on a par with her best bits of pop finery.
Things turn slightly sour on ‘Love Spent’, which deals with the monetary madness of her life, mistrust, and the desire to be wanted for more than her money. Starting with an instrumental folk intro (sounds of Mr. Ritchie echoing in the pub) it rounds a dim corner to the introspective, which is where Madonna does some of her best, if not always popular, work. It’s hard not to think of her ex-husband in this mixture of regret and longing – the wish for what has already been lost or, perhaps worse, already given away. For love or money, begs the once-material girl: “You had all of me, you wanted more/ Would you have married me if I were poor?” she questions. “You played with my heart/ Til death do we part/ That’s what you said.”
By the end, she’s not so much blaming anyone as wishing for a deeper, richer connection: “I want you to take me like you took your money/ Take me in your arms until your last breath/ I want you to hold me like you hold your money/ Hold onto me until there’s nothing left.” It reeks of sadness and regret, tinged with anger and resentment, and the wish for something that transcended money and worldly concerns – and suddenly she is like any other divorced person, wondering where the love went. (Here’s one of the only points where the dense production threatens to drown out the sentiment, and there is reportedly an acoustic version of this that would be well worth hearing.)
If it’s heartache you’re looking to find, ‘Masterpiece’ offers a break in the rushing beats with a melancholy tale of an out-of-grasp object of affection and perfection. “It seems to me that’s what you’re like/ The look-but-please-don’t-touch-me type/ And honestly it can’t be fun to always be the chosen one.” She may be singing to someone else, but chances are she’s also talking to herself.
Gorgeously ending the standard edition of the album is ‘Falling Free’ – a timeless tale of lessons learned and freedom found – and lost and gained again. Madonna weaves a folk-like enchantment over sparse instrumentation, offering pure blissful relief and release from the previous wall of racing, breakneck beats. This is music that aches and weeps, quietly and beautifully. “Deep and pure, our hearts align/ And then I’m free, I’m free of mine/ When I let loose the need to know/ Then we’re both free, we’re free to go…” It is a mournful, elegiac note of acceptance, of forlorn forgiveness, of forging onward in the face of heartbreak. As the closing note of the main album, it rings of resignation, and as much as she wants to dance and distract, it’s an exquisite signifier that her real freedom might be found solely in her music – where it has resided for almost three decades. It’s the one thing she has yet to change.
The additional tracks of the Deluxe Edition offer further glimpses into her emotional state, and a few of these should have made it onto the album proper. Overlooking the relatively tame-in-context f-bombs in ‘I Fucked Up’, this is actually a very pretty bit of regret: “I made a mistake, Nobody does it better than myself/ I’m sorry, I’m not afraid to say/ I wish I could take it back but I can’t.” For the woman who made ‘I’m not sorry’ her mantra for so many years, this is a startling, and moving, admission. Owning up to her mistakes finds her in an uncharacteristic state of vulnerability, and as the drums carry her away amid a sea of “we could’ve”s, you realize that despite the glamorous benefits that likely come from being Madonna, she’s still just a middle-aged woman grappling with the end of a decade-long marriage. That she failed at something that once gave her such happiness and fulfillment puts her on the dangerous axis of self-love versus self-hatred, as exemplified by ‘Beautiful Killer’. It finds her straddling obsession and self-annihilation, and a character who would give up her life for an object of beauty. Nobody ever said Madonna wasn’t dramatic, and the whole thing plays out richly over a taut run of strings and a killer disco beat.
‘Best Friend’ is a sorrowful, skittering track that finds her pondering, “Maybe I challenged you a little bit too much/ We couldn’t have two drivers on the clutch.” Going further she reveals, “Every man that works in that door will be compared to you forevermore.” The non-stop beats and musical whirligigs can’t completely mask the sadness and regret at work here. “It wasn’t always perfect, but it wasn’t always bad,” she admits over a tension-laden cacophony of bleeps and blips.
An argument could be made that she should have switched out some filler on the standard album and substituted a couple of stellar deluxe tracks noted above to make an indomitable collection of immaculate perfection, but the entire song cycle is a ride well-worth taking. As Madonna herself once said, “You can’t get to one place without going through another.” MDNA reasserts her rightful place in the pop world, proving once again that music forms the most basic make-up of her being.