MUSIC REVIEW: With a Rebel Yell

Craig Hanlon-Smith January 3, 2015

The Queen of Pop shows no sign of abdicating, says Craig Hanlon-Smith.

WHATEVER the motivation behind releasing almost a third of an imminent album three months early, the official line to steal the thunder of those behind an alleged hacking, the music industry has changed beyond all recognition from when Madonna first began shifting vinyl by the hangar-load more than thirty years ago.

Artists, producers and record companies alike are now plate-spinning to stay one step ahead of the hackers or simply to satisfy the modern consumer, whose attention span drifts off somewhere around 140 characters or often less.

MostĀ listeners under the age of 25 find the idea of paying for music stitch achingly hilarious and the album format is rumoured to be two heartbeats away from clinically buried. That said, these six tracks from the forthcoming Rebel Heart demonstrate great determination from the lady Madonna, suggesting she has little intention of boxing up the crown for attic storage any time soon.

Madonna is an artist whose creative developments and at times flawed experiments have played out in public, almost in preparation for the big one right around the corner. Early thinner-voiced offerings laying the ground for the critic-slaying Like A Prayer collection in 1989, an underrated Erotica and the bemusing Bedtime Stories foray into RnB, scrapbooks for a career-defining Ray Of Light. It would now seem the underwhelming Hard CandyĀ andĀ MDNA alike were playground kickabouts for what appears to be (on the strength of these initial six) one of the strongest collections of new material in a career now into its fourth decade, perhaps even her best.

First up, forthcoming single Living For Love isĀ a piano-soaked nod to early 1990s UK house, complete with gospel-inspired backing, easily her best assault on the current competition since Hung-Up; and in a similar vein, this club floor filler manages to echo the past whilst sounding way ahead of its contemporaries.

The semi-acoustic opening to Devil Pray suggests a similar approach to Love Profusion from the oft-maligned American Life, that is until the thumping distortion of bass and vocals in the chorus. It would perhaps be trite to suggestĀ an anti-drugs message with spiritual enlightenment ever present but either way, as our lady sings “We can run and we can hide but we won’t find the answers” she has never sounded more confident or in finer voice, a killer sermon from the premier pulpit of pop.

Illuminati, a Kanye West collaboration, besides reminding us that at least one half of Kimye has a talent, shifts the pace but not the reflection “and now the Media’s misleading us all into right, into wrong”. M’s voice is distorted beyond recognition over a synthetic pulse, but the current is also underscored with a Depeche Mode/Yazoo quality that reminds us of the era into which our lucky star landed and “let the music take you out of control” could have been lifted from her own first release Everybody.

In the same way Ray of Light sounded both futuristic and unexpected some 17 years ago, B**ch I’m Madonna achieves the same effect, but there the similarities end. This offering (not in any way easy on the ear at first listen) takes the dub-step and Nicky Minaj collaborations she flirted with on MDNA and kicks them both out of the park.

Equally surprising is Unapologetic B**ch. An anti-‘love’ song: “you know you never really knew how much your selfish bulls*** cost me, f*** you”, Madonna rails about a jilted lover over a harsh ragga-style bass line, the “yeah yeah yeah woah” echoing an autoAmerican-tuned Debbie Harry.

Madonna Ghost town

On these six tracks Madame Ciccone collaborates with over a dozen writers and producers, and yet that unmistakable familiar tone that punched us in the side of the head with Into the Groove thirty years ago remains in the driving seat throughout, not least of all on this collection’s centre piece Ghost Town. With a soaring through-line we haven’t heard in her vocals since The Power of Goodbye the message couldn’t be more apposite:Ā “when the world gets cold I’ll be your cover, let’s just hold onto each other”. On a first listen to Ghost Town it is clear youā€™re sharing one of those career markers Madonna has a habit of pulling out of the hat just when you think it’s all over: “even with no light, we’re gonna shine like gold”, indeed.

In light of the challenges facing the music industry in 2015, whether Rebel Heart will match the sales of career belters Ray of Light or Confessions remains to be seen, and with Radio 1 refusing to playlist a 25 year old La Roux on account of her age group not speaking to their demographic (what??), Madonna’s team have a fight on their hands. If the as-yet unreleased remaining 13 tracks, yup, count `em, that’s 19 in all, match the calibre of these six, then Rebel Heart deserves to be massive.

Arise Sir Madge, you can still dance, for inspiration.