When it comes to Madonna, you just never know. The line between inspiration and cold calculation is blurred and her every move is studied and heavily discussed.
Was her stumble at last week's Brit Awards a genuine blunder? Or an ingenious way to promote her 13th studio album Rebel Heart, with its theme of vulnerability?
Fortunately, in the final analysis, the music wins. Rebel Heart is a fine collection of sturdy pop tunes in which Madonna finally allows herself to look back and sometimes pilfer from her peak periods of the late 80s and early 2000s. Aside from a couple of clunkers, there is plenty for Madonna's hard-core fan base, the casual listener and aspiring producers to enjoy here.
Living For Love
A great start. Rebel Heart kicks off with the first of many of Madonna's self-referential musical moments. The ascending 90s-house keyboards and empowering lyrics recall the likes of Ray of Light and, to a certain extent, Vogue. Diplo, in the first of his several production contributions, anchors it in the present with a sweaty dance breakdown full of squelchy keyboards and deep bass drums.
Madge enlists the seemingly specialised country-dance services of Swedish producer Avicii for this survivor's tale. Thankfully this is nothing like her woeful 2003 cover of Don MacLean's American Pie, but there is heavy reference to The Animals' 1964 classic House of the Rising Sun.
The biggest setback on Madonna's previous album, MDNA, was its heavy-handed approach to innovation. In contrast, Ghosttown is a gorgeous yet streamlined power ballad with a huge, winning chorus. Sure, this could have easily been sung by Katy Perry or Rihanna, but Madonna, fortunately, trusts her pop instincts with this one.
Where Madonna genuinely grieved on her last two albums over the end of her marriage to the British film director Guy Ritchie, her latest ex, Brahim Zaibat, doesn't receive that courtesy on Rebel Heart. Over a peppy reggae track, Madonna gives him a smackdown. Producer Diplo channels his former work with the mercurial Sri Lankan artist and former Madonna collaborator M.I.A. by adding a smattering of air horns and military drum beats.
When the demo version of the track was released this year, it rang alarm bells. While Madonna's voice has never been her strongest asset, she was paired with some staid dance synths and cheesy acoustic guitars. Thankfully, Kanye West rescued it by throwing out the lameness and added the dark and claustrophobic sounds of his seminal 2013 album Yeezus.
B***h, I’m Madonna (featuring Nicki Minaj)
Another production triumph that is nearly derailed by some awful, ego-swelling lyrics. Diplo and the British beat-maker Sophie conjure up a deliciously slithering beat that is a bona fide dance-floor filler. Minaj also rises to the task and delivers another blisteringly bonkers rap.
Discussions of Rebel Heart being too long are legitimate. Hold Tight is the first of a few tracks that should have been cut. Its atmospheric keyboards are sleep-inducing, with Madonna mumbling something about holding on and being strong.
Joan of Arc
A Madonna track harping on about the unforgiving media was always going to sound a bit rich. The anaemic production here doesn’t help as she laments: “Each time they write a hateful word/Dragging my soul into the dirt, I wanna die”. Yeah, I am sure Madonna’s verbal-bullying victim Lady Gaga would agree.
Iconic (featuring Mike Tyson and Chance The Rapper)
Rebel Heart's mini slump is arrested: anyone thinking the former heavyweight boxing champion Tyson has embarked on a music career will be disappointed – his contribution is merely a sample proclaiming his greatness over loud applause, before the beat drops on this motivational dance anthem.
Long before Lana Del Ray, Madonna was demonstrating the underrated power of emotional detachment. In this pensive, piano-led ballad, Madonna refuses to collapse in a teary mess, yet acknowledges she is emotionally in the weeds.
There is a hodgepodge of sounds here, with warm synths, plucked banjos and hollow drums as Madge metaphorically riffs on the open roads and repairing her heart. It’s uninspiring but probably a great commercial jingle if you can afford it.
Another throwback and the most scandalous Madonna track this decade. The brooding bass-filled verse gives way to a poptastic chorus that uses hedonistic sound effects harking back to her 1990 Justify My Love. It is safe to say the lyrical content deserves the parental advisory sticker.
A sonically desolate track as Madonna’s reverb-drenched vocals float over some stalking synths supplied by producer Mike Dean. The chilliness here suits the lyrics as Madge demands her lover be emotionally bare: “Every scar that you try to hide/ All the dark corners of your mind/ Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine”.
Wash All Over Me
The regal final track (of the standard version) is another addition to Madonna’s underrated collection of ballads. This century has been unkind to Madonna, who has had her share of heartbreak. Over a baroque piano, she surveys her present condition but vows to keep on moving: “Gonna watch the sun going down/I’m not gonna run from all this sadness”.