It’s become almost impossible to objectively review any Madonna album at this point in time. Thirty years of an unprecedented stint in the spotlight (a light that continues to shine brightly as everyone continues to offer their take on the woman). It’s worth resurrecting one of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” To cavort, wrestle, and entangle yourself with the fickle beast of fame takes something altogether superhuman – to win more often than not takes a miracle. The fact that the world still has an opinion on Madonna– no matter what it may be – is proof that she’s still winning.
Ageist, sexist, and below-the-belt jabs aside, the single constant that most people side-step when it comes to the woman herself is what she has always done best: music. With ‘Rebel Heart’, the music once again almost gets lost amid the tumultuous journey to get here: early leaks and piracy, sexy photo shoots and red-carpet ass-flashes, and that dangerously epic tumble on stage. Now that the album has seen its official release, the world can hear things as Madonna originally intended.
Opening with an instant Madonna classic, ‘Living For Love,’ things get off to an anthemic powerhouse start, as a gospel-tinged chorus builds to a rousing hand-clapping climax. At first I was oddly unimpressed by the song. Yeah, it was good, but was it great? It took a few listens, one magnificent video, and a pair of live performances to reveal the merit of this. Madonna knows what she’s doing. That some of us still doubt and wonder only makes her prove it, and such drama is what drives much of the album.
“Tell me I’m no good and I’ll be great,” she defiantly commands on ‘Iconic’, following up, “Say I have to fight and I can’t wait.” With a spoken-intro by Mike Tyson and a bit by Chance the Rapper, ‘Iconic’ is a pretty pop song draped in other distractions. As on bonus tracks like ‘Autotune Baby’ there’s a gorgeous song trapped within the skittering rap and musical madness, and she’s going to make you work to find it.
For ‘Rebel Heart’ Madonna worked with everyone and their mother ~ Diplo, Avicci, Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Natalia Kills, Nas, Kanye West, Alicia Keys and even Mike Fucking Tyson ~ and it’s apparent in the sometimes-jarring stand-alone construction of the songs. While some Madonna albums (‘Ray of Light’ or ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’) work best as a cohesive whole, others offer a smorgasbord of songs that have nothing to do with one another (‘True Blue’ and ‘Music’). Each format has its merits and drawbacks, and ‘Rebel Heart’ is decidedly in the latter bunch. The first eight songs alone are the very definition of extreme, veering from the wild and wonderfully crass ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ to one of the most tender songs she’s written in her career ‘ Joan of Arc.’ Such a roller coaster is sometimes difficult to stomach, but to her credit Madonna manages to wrap it all up into one giddy ride.
‘Devil Pray’ is a glorious folk song accented by electronic flourishes, vocal distortions, and a melody-line oddly reminiscent of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ while rumored second single ‘Ghosttown’ is the sort of power balladry that Madonna has never been given the due respect owed for such majesty. (See ‘Rain’ or ‘Live to Tell’ or ‘Drowned World.’) ‘Ghosttown’ is rife with apocalyptic images of the end of the world, but Madonna finds solace in holding onto another person. That sort of rumination is what lifts the album through its sagging points. Like the pair of bitch songs: ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ and ‘Bitch I’m Madonna.’ The former stings an ex-lover over a reggae-electronic beat and the latter is an all-out aural assault on any naysayers. Those two cuts fall clearly on the ‘Rebel’ side of the equation, but they veer toward the grating. Madonna does rebellion more convincingly on ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ where she ticks off a list of all the provocative and milestone pop culture markers she’s staked over the years (name-dropping ‘Ray of Light’, ‘Music’, ‘The Power of Goodbye’, ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Open Your Heart’, and ‘Justify My Love’) and on challenging tracks like ‘Illuminati’ where she espouses the ‘all-seeing eye’ and shoots down conspiracy theories with commanding authority.
Madonna’s own hurt and vulnerability form the crux of what makes her so lovable in spite of her self-obsessed tendencies. Scars form a metaphor for a number of cuts here: “We made it through the fire, Scarred and we’re bruised but our hearts will guide us,” she sings on ‘Hold Tight’, while ‘Beautiful Scars’ expounds upon its titular theme atop a percolating modern-disco backing track. After everything she’s been through (and put herself through) a few battle wounds are to be expected. For the woman who once showed off her naked body in ‘Sex,’ she’s been largely uncomfortable in her skin – no one who shape-shifts in such chameleon-like ways could be entirely happy with herself. Madonna works that out through the music here.
One of the strongest cuts on the album, ‘Inside Out’ finds her seeking a deeper connection: “I wanna know what you’re all about, You’re beautiful when you’re broken down, Let your walls crumble to the ground… Every scar that you try to hide, all the dark corners of your mind, Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” It also boasts the best bridge Madonna has written in years ~ big, beautiful, and soaring: “Let’s cross the line so far we won’t come back, Can’t read your mind, I shouldn’t have to ask, Cynical smile, Time to take off your mask, I’m on your side so let me love you, let me love you.”
Madonna has said that she wanted to focus on solid song-writing this time around, and she’s largely succeeded, even if you have to hunt to find some of them. (Buried gems lie in hidden wait behind the distractions constructed around ‘Illuminati’, ‘Veni Vidi Vici’ and ‘Iconic.’) Other songs are more readily accessible. ‘Heartbreak City’ is emotionally haunting, chronicling the dark ending of a relationship, as the steady drum march drones toward its inevitable ending.
Despite its double entendres of soft porn and some almost-clunky car lyrics, ‘Body Shop’ allows Madonna to make the most casual and breezy delivery of a song in her entire career. Thanks to some super-sweet melodies, this is actually a stellar cut. It’s got wisps of world music to it, a gently-driving undertow of clap-along percussion, and a whimsical banjo base that lends a wistfulness that defies the listener not to sway along.
Then comes ‘Holy Water’ in which she out-Princes Prince himself – straddling the line between sacred and profane, sexy and silly, earnest and completely comical. It’s over-the-top, ridiculous, and epic in its electronic soundscape of the moment. Bonus: it directly quotes one of her biggest hits with an incomprehensible wink and nod.
Percussion plays a main role on this album, driving in some songs, dropping out in the middle of others, and it comes in all forms. From the natural hand-clapping of ‘Body Shop’ to the thundering beats of ‘Hold Tight’ to the racing programmed power of ‘Graffiti Heart’ it’s always exhilarating. Remember, Madonna got her start playing the drums, and the beat has always been her most powerful stock in trade. Even when something starts out as quietly as ‘Wash All Over Me’ the percussive march of time arrives to obliterate: “Torn between the impulse to stay, Or running away from all this madness. Who am I to decide what should be done? If this is the end, then let it come, let it come, let it rain, rain all over me.”
In the end, Madonna is at her best when stripped down and working a pop song within its basic framework. The lush orchestral grandeur of ‘Messiah’ and the gorgeous melody of ‘Joan of Arc’ find her at her most vulnerable (“I can’t be a superhero right now, Even hearts made out of steel can break down”) but the music is so rich the introspective lyrics are buoyed by her delicious delivery.
Title track ‘Rebel Heart’ provides the emotional apex and namesake centerpiece of the beautifully unwieldy collection, finding Madonna at a certain peace: “I’ve spent some time as a narcissist, Hearing the others say ‘Look at you, look at you’ Trying to be so provocative, I said ‘Oh yeah, that was me,’ All the things I did just to be seen.”
Three decades into the fascinating career we’ve had the privilege to watch unfold before our eyes, she’s still finding new ways to surprise and rebel, and it’s still the best show in the business. As the brilliant ‘Graffiti Heart’ reminds us, Madonna played with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the 80’s, and the artistic scene of New York City that was so fresh and vibrant and raw is something that Madonna, even in all her commercial success and polished personae, has kept as key to her artistic merit. Now she’s inviting the rest of us to show her our graffiti hearts, to reveal our scars, to confess and to be ourselves. Throughout all the guises she adopts in this latest romp ~ a rebel heart, unapologetic bitch, martyr, lover, sinner, and queen, there’s one thing she can’t help but be: Madonna.
Like its various versions (Standard, Deluxe, Super Deluxe) ‘Rebel Heart’ is a fragmented affair ~ a fascinating patchwork that almost becomes a rich tapestry, but even when it’s a mess, it’s a gorgeous mess (witness the sonic wonder of ‘Holy Water’ or the scattered multiple-personalities of ‘Iconic’). In the end, Madonna reveals and revels in the rebellion of her heart, and as she continues to forge new ground in the way a female artist is perceived and behaves, she proves to be as relevant as she was thirty years ago.