On her 12th studio album, MDNA (out this week), Madonna sometimes talks about her life with Guy Ritchie ("Would you have married me if I were poor?"). But her self-fixation, the album's real theme, is generally career-focused. You hear it in the way the way that certain songs echo her past work — "I'm a Sinner" breaks with a guitar solo a la "Ray of Light" and sports the plastic psychedelia of "Beautiful Stranger," while the chord progression of "Beautiful Killer" is similar to that of "Die Another Day." There are overt references, too – "Like a Virgin," "Into the Groove" and "Lucky Star" are name checked. The album opens with, "Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all my sins..." which she previously said in Like a Prayer's "Act of Contrition."
There are references to references: the melody of the chorus (well one of them) of "Love Spent" recalls ABBA's "Money, Money, Money," which recalls the time when Madonna sampled their "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" in "Hung Up." And for Madonna, self-reference is a reference in itself: In "Causing a Commotion," she invoked "Into the Groove," while "Deeper and Deeper" repeats the, "You've got to just / Let your body move to the music" first heard in "Vogue." Madonna has lived to tell and tell about telling.
That she would construct an album of implicit narcissism is unsurprising – her popularity may have taken a hit in recent years, but her status as an icon is unwavering. As a culture, we've told her that she is anointed and she has no reason not to believe it. The deluge of questions she received during her one-day Twitter stint is enough to confirm that people want to hear about her, that she is inherently fascinating. Is it any wonder that this superstar's go-to compliment is "star"? (As in, "Everybody is a star" from her Girlie Show Tour interpolation of Sly and the Family Stone's song of that name, as well as her own "Spotlight," or "Little Star," her first song about her daughter or MDNA's "Superstar," her most shamelessly chipper song since "Cherish.")
That makes sense. Madonna's always been more of a reflection than a pioneer, more interpreter than inventor. Her apparent fixation on youth (her predilection for young bucks, the bouncy spunk of her sound, her face) is nothing but a cultural mirror.
So's her language. She is a champion of clichés, and they're all over MDNA: fish out of water, bats out of hell, gold medals, blood on hands, good guys finishing last, velvet rope. Madonna keeps her enemies close and elsewhere admires a dude with a "way with words," who brought out the best in her. She falls free. She's had her heart played with.
She also jumped the gun, although she doesn't explicitly admit to it. MDNA is a house album for a time when house records are all the rage in the U.S. When she last attempted a large-scale dance album with 2005's Confessions on a Dancefloor, the country just wasn't ready (contrast the Billboard Hot 100 peak of "Hung Up" – No. 7 – with its worldwide performance that found it No. 1 in 41 countries and in the Guinness Book of World Records as a result). MDNA is an attempt to reclaim the territory of one of house music's earliest mainstream champions (I think it was Frankie Knuckles who said that "Vogue" made house legit). Alongside commercial performers like Martin Solveig, and Benny Benassi, as well as William Orbit, who served her career comeback so well on 1998's Ray of Light, Madonna has crafted a deceptively delicate album of dynamic bangers. As opposed to the block waveforms of, say, the entirety of Lady Gaga's Born this Way, the songs of MDNA are spacious, boasting a real sense of depth. Some pummel out of the gate, but many take their time to do so, gradually leaning into house's four-on-the-floor beat design to give a real sense of momentum, or as in the case of "I'm Addicted," fine tuning that design to create and ebb and flow of intensity.
These songs go places, whether in the loud-to-quiet dynamic of "Turn Up the Radio" or the monotone-to-soaring melody of "Some Girls" or the structure-fucking album highlight "Love Spent." That one opens up in the middle alongside Madonna's lyrical revelation (her guy/Guy wanted her to spend her money on him, she doled out love instead and now she is spent) and the song moves from freestyle lament to house anthem. Throughout the album, ambient effects swoop in and out, filtered sounds brood, Daft Punk laser sounds cameo, beats stutter alongside Madonna's voice. Her last album was called Hard Candy – this is easy ear candy. It out-sophisticates the Top 40 by a lot, while resisting obtuseness.
Her voice, that thin and fragile trademark of hers that sounds like it could go hoarse or evaporate at any moment, is pushed and pulled and sliced. Sometimes, like in the conclusion of "I'm a Sinner," the screeching is as uncomfortable to listen to as it must have been to sing. That said, there's a versatility here that is uncommon in vocalists who can carry a tune with far greater ease. She's a cheeky moll in the excellent and sparse Chicago-inspired thumper "Gang Bang" (unfortunately not about an actual gang bang), she's a robot in "Girl Gone Wild," she's a sweet cheerleader in "Superstar." She cries at the end of the beat-less ballad "Falling Free." She raps in "I Don't Give A," and the results are not unlike Rebecca Black in "Friday" ("Connecting to the WIFI / Went from nerd to superb / Have you seen the new guy? / I forgot the password / Gotta call the babysitter /Tweetin' on the elevator / I could take a helicopter / I don't even feel the pressure"). She's not always successful. Daring has long been crucial to her work. Through risking and especially failure, ambition defines her voice as much as it does her life. On MDNA she suggests that the next best thing to being a vocal diva is pretending like you are one.
MDNA's joy is not hard to grasp (house is a feeling), but its nuances are what make it great. That these are conversant with the larger story of pop house and Madonna's own career means that this album is going to matter most to those who have been paying attention. And what that ultimately means is that Madonna is preaching to the choir here, showing how great she is to people who already knew. It's like a little prayer. For the contempt that familiarity breeds alone and the unrelenting ageism that she puts so much effort into dodging, Madonna's batting average as a hitmaker may continue its decline. But for a certain segment of the population, MDNA will feel like home.