On her 2008 album, “Hard Candy,” Madonna let her A-list producers steer. Timbaland and the Neptunes were hired to give her some club-banging hits, but all they really did was bury her personality. It continued a decade-long string of relatively uneventful Madonna releases, as Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Lady Gaga surpassed her on the charts.
“MDNA” (Interscope), her first studio album since then, is a different story. It finds Madonna once again in charge and apparently motivated, cowriting and coproducing every track – and this time, the cocredits aren’t just cosmetic. It’s her best album since “Ray of Light” in 1998, an album that balanced introspection and pop dazzle in collaboration with U.K. electronic artist William Orbit. Not coincidentally, Orbit returns for the first time in a decade to play a key role on the new album.
Orbit splits most of the production with Italian DJ Marco "Benny" Benassi and French techno maven Martin Solveig. Benassi and Solveig focus on the dancefloor, and they service the machine while recycling Madonna-isms from decades past.
Benassi’s “Girl Gone Wild” starts with a confession: “I detest all my sins… I want so badly to be good.” The singer was flirting with the naughty Catholic girl imagery in the ‘80s, and she doesn’t take it anywhere new here, unless the vocoder-soaked vocals count as progress. The disappointing Solveig-produced single “Give Me All Your Luvin’ ” turns on a silly cheerleader-style chorus (Toni Basil got there first, 30 years ago), and brief cameos from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. “Every record sounds the same, you got to step into my world,” Madonna sings, without giving us a single compelling reason why.
The Madonna-by-numbers up-tempo romps (“Addicted,” “Turn up the Radio”) dominate the first half of the album, but she excels on the Orbit tracks. “Gang Bang” is a slice of Tarantino-like Grind House spectacle, with Madonna as an abused lover-turned-avenger. The ominous, minimalist soundscape, flavored by whipcracks and screeching tires, makes for top-tier club drama. On “I’m a Sinner,” which blurs Saturday night grime and Sunday morning grace, her voice projects both vulnerability and defiance.
Like few Madonna albums in the last decade, the album has an emotional center, informed by the latest upheaval in her personal life. In 1998 for “Ray of Light,” it was the birth of her first child that colored that album’s more open tone. On “MDNA,” it’s the dissolution of her marriage to movie director Guy Ritchie.
“Love Spent” – the rare disco track to prominently feature a banjo -- addresses the divorce: “Love me like your money … I want you to take me like you took your money.” The Spanish-flavored ballad “Masterpiece” meditates on what might have been. Madonna takes some shots at her ex, but the overall tone set by the last quarter of the album is one of sadness – and when was the last time we could say that about Madonna’s music?
“Falling Free” ends the album on a bereft note. “We’re both free to go,” Madonna sings. Unlike anything in her catalog, it’s a woozy, almost psychedelic slice of chamber pop. At points, Madonna sounds like she’s channeling the ‘60s Brit-folk ballads of Sandy Denny or Anne Briggs. It’s a contemplative wind-up to an album that starts in the disco and finishes at home, in solitude.