3 stars (out of 4)
On her 2008 album, “Hard Candy,”
"MDNA" (Interscope), her first studio album since then, is a different story. It finds Madonna once again in charge and apparently motivated, cowriting and coproducing every track – and this time, the cocredits aren't just cosmetic. It's her best album since "Ray of Light" in 1998, an album that balanced introspection and pop dazzle in collaboration with U.K. electronic artist William Orbit. Not coincidentally, Orbit returns for the first time in a decade to play a key role on the new album.
Orbit splits most of the production with Italian DJ Marco "Benny" Benassi and French techno maven
Benassi’s “Girl Gone Wild” starts with a confession: “I detest all my sins… I want so badly to be good.” The singer was flirting with the naughty Catholic girl imagery in the ‘80s, and she doesn’t take it anywhere new here, unless the vocoder-soaked vocals count as progress. The disappointing Solveig-produced single “Give Me All Your Luvin’ ” turns on a silly cheerleader-style chorus (Toni Basil got there first, 30 years ago), and brief cameos from
The Madonna-by-numbers up-tempo romps ("Addicted," "Turn up the Radio") dominate the first half of the album, but she excels on the Orbit tracks. "Gang Bang" is a slice of Tarantino-like Grind House spectacle, with Madonna as an abused lover-turned-avenger. The ominous, minimalist soundscape, flavored by whipcracks and screeching tires, makes for top-tier club drama. On "I'm a Sinner," which blurs Saturday night grime and Sunday morning grace, her voice projects both vulnerability and defiance.
Like few Madonna albums in the last decade, the album has an emotional center, informed by the latest upheaval in her personal life. In 1998 for “Ray of Light,” it was the birth of her first child that colored that album’s more open tone. On “MDNA,” it’s the dissolution of her marriage to movie director
“Love Spent” – the rare
"Falling Free" ends the album on a bereft note. "We're both free to go," Madonna sings. Unlike anything in her catalog, it's a woozy, almost psychedelic slice of chamber pop. At points, Madonna sounds like she's channeling the '60s Brit-folk ballads of Sandy Denny or Anne Briggs. It's a contemplative wind-up to an album that starts in the disco and finishes at home, in solitude.