It's been four years since the last Madonna studio album - the rather disappointing Hard Candy, which for the first time in her varied career didn't sound like a Madonna record. The first signs for MDNA weren't great: the lacklustre single Give Me All Your Luvin' sounded bland and weak...and this was supposed to be the album's lead single! Could the unthinkable have happened and Madonna lost her touch? Well, having listened to the finished article several times, I can state with some relief that Madonna is still very much firing on all cylinders - MDNA is her most rewarding album for years.
There are two sides to Madonna's music: firstly the irresistible dance floor pop of her classic hits such as Holiday, Into The Groove and Hung Up, and secondly the more serious, introspective side revealed on albums such as Like A Prayer and Ray Of Light. MDNA brings both sides together, with the first half of the album dominated by dance music and the second half containing generally slower, more personal material. It doesn't have the immediate appeal of her earliest records or the more recent Confessions On A Dance Floor; it takes time to appreciate, with Madonna surprising and challenging the listener as she does in all her best work.
Things start off simply enough, with the catchy dance pop of imminent second single Girl Gone Wild, which joins the breezy, uplifting Turn Up The Radio as the most obvious single choices. Some Girls starts abrasively but soon shifts into an infectious slice of electronica, with a slightly harder dance sound appearing on the track I'm Addicted. Dialling down the pace, Superstar is a sweet mid-paced love song (which may be a little saccharine for some). And of course there's Give Me All Your Luvin', which still sounds pretty feeble and rather out of place. For fans who love her poppier moments and her dance tracks, there's plenty here to enjoy.
It's no secret that William Orbit is one of MDNA's collaborators, and it's his contributions that provide the more intriguing, thoughtful songs on the album. I'm A Sinner is very reminiscent of his work with Madonna on Ray Of Light with it's "Wooh Wooh" hook, but the other Orbit material here covers new ground. Love Spent starts out with a folksy banjo strum, believe it or not, then turns into a wistful dance tune lamenting a former lover's materialism; Masterpiece is Latin-tinged and melancholy; Falling Free is a haunting ballad with an emotive, powerful vocal performance from Madonna. Perhaps the most striking track of all is Gang Bang, an astonishingly aggressive stream of invective that's like nothing else she's ever done, and I imagine will become something of a fan favourite. For me, as much as I enjoy the straightforward pop songs, these four tracks represent the album at it's best.
Apart from Give Me All Your Luvin', the one song I'm not entirely sold on is the funk flavoured I Don't Give A, perhaps because it is the only track to hark back to Hard Candy, and as a consequence it doesn't quite fit - although it's not a bad song by any means, and the lyrics are at least amusing.
So, where does MDNA fit in the Madonna Hall Of Fame? Well, it can't compare to the twin highlights of her career, Like A Prayer and Ray Of Light, but it's certainly right up among the best of the rest. Madonna's 12th studio album manages to satisfy the feet, the head and the heart...and all without a telephone hat or a meat dress in sight. Terrific stuff.
BONUS TRACKS: just a quick mention of the deluxe version's extra tracks: Beautiful Killer is a light mid-paced track which is pleasant but not outstanding; I F***** Up is perhaps the most personal song on the album, clearly detailing the breakdown of her marriage to Guy Ritchie - it's touching and the best of the extras (it should have been on the main album in fact). Best Friend covers similar territory but with a more electronic sound, and B-Day Song is a somewhat bizarre, almost Beatlesesque pop tune. There's also a remix of Give Me All Your Luvin' which does give the song some much-needed oomph. Fans will certainly want these extra songs, but the casual listener can probably live without them.