Music review: Madonna's Rebel Heart takes a long look at herself
Madonna's latest release is an album of two halves
Its release has been plagued by controversy over piracy, the term "artistic rape", claims of cultural appropriation, and the vexing question of whether it's all right to laugh at a 56-year-old woman falling on her butt during a dance routine. But the most striking thing about Madonna's 13th studio album is rather more prosaic: it's extremely long.
The deluxe version features 19 tracks and lasts for the best part of an hour and a half. The super-deluxe version adds a second disc, featuring another raft of songs and remixes - anyone planning to listen in full is advised to first ensure their will is up to date in case they die of old age before they get to the end.
Rebel Heart is that long because it is essentially two separate albums. One is wistful and thick with reflections on failed love affairs and intimations of self-doubt. Most shockingly, it occasionally touches on the hitherto-unmentionable notion that Madonna's career might draw to a conclusion at some point: "In a world that's changing/ I'm a stranger in a strange land," she sings over wafty electronics and a battery of percussion on the gorgeous Wash All Over Me, "if this is the end then let it come".
The other offers dirty talk and defiant I'm-still-here snarls set to EDM-inspired productions, frequently the handiwork of dance music producer Diplo. There's obviously no reason why an album can't contain both. But on Rebel Heart, the two don't quite gel, perhaps because you get the feeling that the former might represent the music Madonna wants to make, while the latter is the music she feels obliged to make, in order to compete with whoever the big new female pop star is: listening to a track called S.E.X., you're struck by the sense of a woman dutifully going through the motions.
Certainly, the first category contains almost all of Rebel Heart's indispensable moments, and not just because they belong to the slim canon of Madonna songs on which the singer genuinely seems to be revealing her personal feelings and frailties: Ghosttown and Joan of Arc are cut from the same emotional cloth as Like a Prayer's Promise to Try or Ray of Light's Drowned World/Substitute for Love. As well as the most intriguing words, they have the album's best melodies. For all the expressions of insecurity, they boast an effortlessness and a confidence that contrast sharply
with the sweat and strain that's audibly gone into what Miley Cyrus would call the bangerz. There's an ease and unaffectedness about the title track - a stark depiction of the cost of fame, clear-eyed and devoid of self pity - that's noticeably absent when Madonna starts carrying on like a rapper on Best Night, informing us that "It gon' be like this/ We gon' be gangstas tonight" and so on.
That said, the bangerz aren't all bad, by any means. Kanye West's co-productions carry the same thrillingly authentic twang of bug-eyed lunacy that graced Yeezus, not least Illuminati, a fizzing cacophony of fragmented vocal samples and synthesisers that don't so much throb as pound. Body Shop is great, a sweet Cherish-like melody over what sounds like a kutam (a musical instrument comprising an earthenware pot with a string). And, if nothing else, you have to admire the sheer brass cojones of a woman who tells interviewers she never deliberately tries to be provocative - "I wasn't sitting there in my laboratory of s***-stirring going, 'This is gonna f*** with people'" - while promoting an album that contains a song on which Madonna compares her vaginal mucus to holy water, and suggests that Jesus might have enjoyed giving her cunnilingus: "On your knees and genuflect/ Jesus loves my pussy best."
Elsewhere, however, things go awry. Bitch I'm Madonna is a fantastic title in search of a song. In lieu of one, producer Diplo comes up with a hybrid of EDM and happy hardcore and throws Nicki Minaj at her most hyperactive into the mix; the result sets your teeth on edge.
There are moments when Madonna appears to be frantically chasing after other artists or trends. The hook of Inside Out is perilously close to that of Rihanna's Diamonds, while Devil Pray - a bit of anti-drug sermonising that offers the deeply improbable image of Madonna indulging in solvent abuse - is a pretty transparent attempt by EDM star Avicii to come up with something along the lines of his hit Wake Me Up. Veni Vidi Vici, meanwhile, starts out a fascinating memoir of Madonna's early days in New York, before disappointingly devolving into a plonking list of her hits: "I justified my love, I made you say a little prayer/ They had me crucified you know I had to take it there." Mercifully, this grinds to a halt before it can start exploring the less celebrated areas of her oeuvre: "I did Evita too and also Hanky Panky/ And in Sex there was a photograph of me having a wanky."
There's something bracing about Madonna's insistence that she belongs in exactly the same place she's been for more than 30 years - at the forefront of mainstream pop, asserting her supremacy over anyone who dares challenge her - and something impressive about her refusal to do the kind of things every other artist four decades into their career does: no unplugged shows with the singer sitting demurely on a stool and emoting to an acoustic guitar; no deviation into the Great American Songbook; no album that cravenly attempts to recreate the sound of her best-loved early work.
You can understand why she sees that kind of thing as a one-way ticket to the knacker's yard, why she'd rather prove she can still talk dirtier or come up with more outrageous braggadocio than any young pretender. But at least half of Rebel Heart proves it's not as stark a choice as that. Madonna can come up with songs that are both mature and reflective and that function as fantastic pop music, and they're all the more potent because they sound like they're being made entirely on her own terms.