As someone who hadn’t listened to a Madonna album since 1998’s Ray of Light, I approached her new record, Rebel Heart, cautiously. After listening to it I’m still not sure what to make of it. It at least finds Madonna playing to her strengths, but it still contains some truly appalling misfires.
On the plus side, the single “Living for Love” is one of Madonna’s best songs in recent years, featuring one of her patented anthemic choruses. It’s one of a series of songs which heavily feature acoustic guitar. “Joan of Arc” and the gospel-tinged title track are among the best examples of this on the album.
The album features many high-profile collaborators. Diplo shows up to produce “Unapologetic Bitch,” which manages to be good despite some ridiculous lyrics. The same can’t be said for the Kanye-helmed “Illuminati.” The collaboration with Nicki Minaj “Bitch, I’m Madonna” works well, except that Minaj isn’t featured enough. The most bizarre collaboration involves Mike Tyson, who delivers a spoken word monologue at the start of “Iconic” which adds nothing to the song.
Unsurprisingly, Madonna still sings about sex. A lot. Which is fine if the song is good, like “Erotica” or “Justify My Love,” but just sounds desperate on this album’s “S.E.X.” or the truly embarrassing “Body Shop,” which uses the car-as-sex metaphor which I thought had been outlawed in the 1980’s.
The album does end on a high note, however, with the title track being reminiscent of Madonna’s great run of singles in the 1980s. Overall, the record is best described as an interesting failure. For a start, it has far too many songs (the “deluxe” version reviewed contains 19, the “normal” album containing 14 and the “super deluxe” containing a mind-boggling 25 tracks). Madonna really would be better off stripping back on the collaborators and making a ten-track album of stripped down pop songs. Given her never-ending quest for the zeitgeist, it’s highly unlikely that this is the direction she will go in next.