Thirty years after dancing around Venice dressed in a wedding dress with only a lion for company, Madonna is still making the headlines. For proof, you only need to look at Rebel Heart’s rather bumpy journey into the world: unfinished demos were leaked onto the internet last year, which Madonna rather unwisely compared to both rape and terrorism.
Then there was the fuss over the album’s artwork and its resultant internet memes, which spawned accusations of racism and cultural appropriation. And, finally, La Madge provided this year’s BRIT Awards with its sole moment of interest as she fell down a flight of stairs – and not in the cool way that St Vincent does in her live performances.
The fact that a woman falling over can provoke world-wide headlines is proof positive of the cultural impact that Madonna still wields on the zeitgeist. And all this is without even mentioning the music contained on Rebel Heart – which is, perhaps, her most impressive achievement considering that she’s not really produced a truly great album since Confessions On A Dance Floor a decade ago.
As it turns out, Madonna’s 13th studio album is her strongest in quite a while, if never quite hitting the heights of her classic material. It is, undoubtedly, one hot mess of a record: it’s far, far too long for one thing, with the ‘deluxe edition’ running to 19 tracks and a whopping 74 minutes, and the songs vary wildly from slightly flat ballads, disco anthems, and some completely bizarre ventures into dancehall and dubstep. Yet, even when Rebel Heart is at its most ludicrous (and, at times, it’s utterly batshit insane), it remains effortlessly, thrillingly inventive.
Rebel Heart is, in effect, two albums in one. In one corner, there’s the conventional songs: the glorious dancefloor filler of Living For Love, which may forever now be associated with That Tumble but which still possess the rare ability to move both the feet and the heart, the gorgeous, atmospheric ballad Ghosttown, and the genuinely moving, autobiographical Joan Of Arc: the latter’s opening lines of “Each time they take a photograph, I lose a part I can’t get back” make it clear who this particular song is aimed at.
If Rebel Heart had been full of decent pop tracks like this, then it would still have been Madonna’s consistent collection in years. Yet what raises it to another level (and which may well put the more casual fan off) is the album’s more experimental side. There are tracks produced by Diplo, a couple of exhilaratingly weird collaborations with Kanye West and an awful lot of self-referential, allusions. There’s even a track called Bitch I’m Madonna, and Veni Vidi Vici rather brilliantly references most of her previous singles in the lyrics. It all becomes so meta, it’s only a surprise not to see a cover version of Robbie Williams‘ She’s Madonna.
The Kanye collaborations work particularly well – Illuminati sees Madonna namechecking Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Obama, Oprah and Steve Jobs over one of West’s more scuzzy, grimy soundscapes, while Holy Water is just hilariously sleazy: lyrics like “Kiss it better, make it wetter” don’t allude to the type of holy water the clergy are familar with, although “Yeezus likes my pussy best” will probably make even the least prudish do a double-take. The surprise refrain of Vogue towards the end just adds to the song’s genius.
At times, there’s a vaguely valedictory feel to Rebel Heart, thanks to the frequent references to her own past: that surprise reprise of Vogue is one of a fair few references to past glories. The aforementioned Veni Vidi Vici (only available on the deluxe edition of the album) reads almost like an autobiography – “I know I walked the borderline….and when I struck a pose, all the gay boys lost their mind…I opened up my heart, I learned the power of good-bye, I saw a ray of light, music saved my life”.
On an album of such length, there are bound to be a few misfires: Bitch I’m Madonna never quite lives up to its fantastic title, and just sounds a bit of a mess, trying to cram in Diplo-produced dancehall rhythms, a dubstep breakdown and the seemingly now obligatory Nicki Minaj guest rap. S.E.X. is a rather tired retread of old ground (you can probably guess what it’s all about), while Iconic, with its Mike Tyson-sampling introduction and lyrics that sound like they’re from a self-help manual (“What you want is just within your reach but you gotta practice what you preach”) falls rather flat.
Yet, for all its flaws, there’s something undeniably addictive about Rebel Heart, and even the songs that don’t work so well are still a million times better than anything gathered on MDNA or Hard Candy. And, for all the jibes about her age or her perceived relevance in 2015, there’s still more energy and invention crammed into this record than someone half her age could produce. For someone so often accused of placing image over substance over the years, that’s quite the achievement.