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Music Review: The Apathy and Ecstasy of Madonna’s MDNA

In the interest of fairness, I should let you know that some people think Madonna’s new album, MDNA, is pretty good. Even if you exclude the obvious outliers (those who get worked up and claim it’s her best since Like a Prayer) and partisans (who’ll ride and die for anything with her name on it) — even if you take into account the low standards set by the album’s singles — even after all that, there’s a definite streak of appreciation for this release. People crave and root for the all-caps version of Madonna who’s meant to be appearing here, confident and cutting loose, eyes and ears focused on the dance floor, ready to be bad. This should be a perfect moment for the regal reemergence of that person. Not only is the pop world near-obsessively fixated on dance music (and the intersection of dance music and sexual/religious theater where Madonna once set up shop), but it seems to be shot through with a sudden wide-eyed reverence for the icons of the pre-Internet world, the stars who were titans back when titans were well and truly titanic.

Also, the album is called MDNA, a three-way pun whose every arm seems promising: The album should (a) be very Madonna, (b) reengage with her stunning musical history, her (so to speak) DNA, and (c) sound like it’s on ecstasy. This should be exactly the Madonna the world wants, the one who controls the universe.

I’m glad there are listeners savvy, sensitive, and invested enough to actually locate that version of Madonna on MDNA, because the record I’m hearing spends most of its time pinballing from “decent” to “wan” to “okay.” Dispiritingly enough, the one element that doesn’t fit into it is Madonna’s own voice, which has never been the most robust or expressive in the world — it can feel flat and flimsy — but she’s made decades’ worth of fabulous music that’s perfectly tailored to it. Matched with luxurious nineties house beats, it could be a steamy moan, or sound flinty and tough. On ballads it seems small, brave, and lonesome. For a while she had producer William Orbit — who returns to the fold on MDNA, joining a fleet of others — to make whooshing, propulsive tracks she could skip her high voice over like a stone on water. She’s found countless sounds that welcome her, but the dance-pop of 2012 is not one of them. It’s hard-edged, dense, shiny, and mechanistic, a harsh and unforgiving environment for an instrument that’s always fared better in sonic hothouses. Put MDNA’s production and her vocals together and everything’s flat, colorless, and blocky — as if made out of Legos and photographed in black and white — and no number of chirpy hooks can combat that.

Okay, a few can: the gleamy rush on “Turn Up the Radio”; Madonna and Orbit both echoing their own “Beautiful Stranger” on “I’m a Sinner”; a solid shot of electro machinery on “I’m Addicted.” Those all work well enough; they’re likable, especially if you have reason to want to like them. But a lot of the music here feels hollow and strained, and all the lyrical and sonic references to Madonna’s history — lines about lucky stars and getting into grooves, a winking reuse of the Abba sample from “Hung Up” — only underline that fact. There is much expensive workmanship and machine-tooling around here, but not much … Madonna.

It’s frustrating, because there are things toward the end of MDNA that suggest the project could have been more interesting. The last few tracks — like “Love Spent” and “Masterpiece” (from Madonna’s film project, W.E.) — circle back toward that brave-and-lonely ballad voice: It’s the sound of Madonna singing songs, as opposed to the sound of Madonna making awkward small talk with machines. And the bonus tracks, naturally, include ideas many times better than anything on the album. (“B-Day Song” sees Madonna and M.I.A. doing a gleeful duet that evokes Sonny and Cher, and “Best Friend” has an ominous, fluttering beat I dearly wish I could hear on the radio sometime.) It’s odd: If there’s one thing MDNA is extraordinarily good at, it’s reminding you of all the less businesslike and perfunctory music you could be listening to instead.

Photo: Illustration by Dienstelle 75. Photograph by Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott/Courtesy of Universal Music Group