Every time a Madonna album comes out, it’s difficult to judge it on merit alone, because the pop diva always releases new music in a flurry of publicity. With Rebel Heart, a lot of the noise wasn’t Madonna’s own doing: in fact, the release of Rebel Heart is notable because it puts Madonna in a position she’s not used to: not being in control. Hackers released songs on the Internet before they were meant to be released, so in response, Madonna and her label decided to release a clutch of album tracks. It wasn’t the online ka-pow of Beyonce’s online album release, but it does show that even the mighty Madonna is vulnerable to Internet music swipers.
All of this loudness shouldn’t obscure that Rebel Heart is easily Madonna’s strongest album since 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor (and by the way, it makes me feel old to say that COADF is 10 years old). What makes Rebel Heart so great is that the music marries a variety of Madonnas into one cohesive sound – there’s the defiant, “up yours, asshole”; the sexy Madonna; the Madonna that just wants to dance; and the sad, soulful Madonna. It’s the latter that I find to be the most intriguing because for the bulk of her career, Madonna has crafted an image akin to the Maschinenmensch – all metal and steel, with little room for vulnerability. But when given the chance, one of Madonna’s greatest strengths is how human she is (ignore the slogan-like chorus of “Vogue” and read the hit song’s poignant lyrics).
With all that I just typed up, it seems as if the simple act of listening to a Madonna record must be a heavy act. Not so. The songs on Rebel Heart show the pop singer at her best: instead of trying to fit her into dance-pop trends that may not be terribly sympathetic, Madonna’s raft of producers create a soundscape in which she sounds perfectly at ease. Though not a nostalgia fest, Rebel Heart does harken back to some of Madonna’s earlier sounds – like “Living for Love,” the song’s gospel-inflected house-pop number that sports EDM beats, uplifting lyrics, and a hallelujah gospel chorus. To Madonna’s credit, though the soloist (Annie from the London Community Gospel Choir) is a much stronger singer, Madonna’s vocals stand proudly on their own. “Living for Love” will remind listeners of “Like a Prayer” or “Nothing Fails” with Madonna’s patented penchant for the secular with the sacred.
Other songs on Rebel Heart also look at Madonna’s salad days. “Holy Water” – which indulges in the singer’s interest in Catholic imagery, has a nasal-sounding, stuttering synth that will remind some of her Like a Virgin days, while “Hold Tight” has the synth-brushed loopiness of Ray of Light. And though her overtures to urban radio has largely been mixed (Hard Candy was a bit of a chore to listen to), on Rebel Heart, her forays into hip-hop sound credible – especially her joyfully defiant “Bitch, I’m Madonna” (which pairs our superstar with an always-welcome Nicki Minaj). And the Kanye West-helmed “Illuminati” will erase the bad memories of Madonna’s rapping in “American Life.”
But what makes Rebel Heart so captivating is the “heart” part of the equation. At this point in her career, Madonna feels safe enough to let listeners see that beneath the lacquered-solid exterior beats the heart of a very sensitive lady. None of the ballads or slower numbers indulge in icky platitudes, but instead hark back to Madonna’s constant quest for self-empowerment and betterment. In the autobiographical title track, over a catchy beat and strumming guitars, she sings about not fitting in, and being an eccentric and an original. Instead of roaring with a full-throated passion, she’s crooning wryly. And in the song’s best song – the aptly-titled “Joan of Arc,” Madonna warbles with a bruised knowing about how rough it is sometimes, being Madonna. As she sagely admits, “I can’t be a superhero, right now,” listeners get a chance to see that all of the nasty quips on Twitter or Facebook about Madonna’s age, sexuality, talent, or looks do have an effect. There’s little of the conqueror of “Living for Love,” and instead we get the image of a sad and sometimes weary warrior – and it’s very appealing.
Rebel Heart isn’t a perfect record, nor is it Madonna’s best. The album’s sprawling 19 (!) tracks make it for a bit of a slough to get through – and though the bulk of the album shows Madonna at her best, some of the low points – like the ridiculous “S.E.X.” or the ugly “Veni Vidi Vici” – glare an unforgiving spotlight on some of Madonna’s shortcomings, mainly her sometimes schizophrenic grasp at music trends as well as her dredging up the hyper sexuality of her Erotica days, which at this point sound a bit routine and rote.
But at this point, these quibbles feel like nitpicking – Rebel Heart is not merely a “cohesive” or “consistent” set, but a very good, solid B+/A- effort, which is very impressive, given that Madonna’s been writing songs and making music for 30 years, and it appears that despite the threat of younger divas who are vying for her crown, Madonna still has a lot to say – and it’s still awfully compelling.