Madonna’s had a tough couple of months. Just before Christmas last year a handful of demos from her new album were leaked to the public and she and Interscope had to frantically release six finished tracks for an album that was three months from release. Then, in February, the entirety of the Super Deluxe version of the album, Rebel Heart, was leaked. And if that weren’t enough, during a performance of the album’s lead single, “Living for Love” at the BRIT Awards last week, a costume malfunction found her pulled down the stairs of her stage set, giving her whiplash and making her the butt of age jokes across the internet. But, as the song goes and as Madonna has lived her entire career, she’s gonna carry on.
With the release of Rebel Heart, her 13th studio album in a career spanning over 30 years, Madonna has brought us her best work in over a decade. The super deluxe version, consisting of 25 songs, is a massive, ballsy effort and even if she could have subscribed to the ‘less is more’ adage, it’s epic, richly thematic and contains some of the best vocals of her career.
The album opens with “Living for Love” and it’s classic Madonna but with Diplo’s careful (for once) touch of modern club dance. It’s the kind of song that would have been a big hit for her in the first half of her career before media and radio (and fans, to be honest) turned their back on her. Chalk it up to her age, the impression that she’s clinging to youth or the fickle nature of music appreciation. I don’t really think she cares. If Madonna wanted another #1 song she could drag Katy Perry or Ariana Grande or hell, Taylor Swift as a featured artist and nab that hit. She’s more concerned with her true blue fans, the ones that go to the shows. And that’s something you’ll notice on this album; for all of its frenetic, disparate energy most of the songs on Rebel Heart sound like ready made for a huge venue. They’re anthems, songs that you can and will sing along with. Madonna knows her tours are her big draw and it feels like this album was made for that.
Lots of singers have songs about the lament of success, the price they pay. It’s often met with side-eye from people wondering how or why they would complain about their glamorous life. Madonna delved into this territory in the melancholy “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” and the angry “Human Nature,” but she does herself one better here with “Joan of Arc.” It’s smart and even a bit cheeky. She wants to express her sadness when people talk shit about her but not mope or simply feel sorry for herself. When she sings “I’m not Joan of Arc….not yet.” she’s playing with her own iconography in a less self-serious way that even she’s done before.
“Ghosttown” is a major success. It’s a power ballad of huge proportion. Gorgeous and rich and her vocals are on point. The pair of ‘bitch’ songs, “Unapologetic Bitch” and Bitch I’m Madonna,” seem at first to be throwaway pop but are actually way more fun than they have any right to be. “Unapologetic Bitch” is deep in dub and ska and “Bitch I’m Madonna” is the counterpart to “Joan of Arc;” she celebrates her celebrity with some assistance from Nicki Minaj. It’s a banger.
But it’s not all fun. In “Holy Water” and “S.E.X.” the singer digs up some pretty tired clichés with her sex thrust up against religious iconography and they would have been better left on the cutting room floor. She’s done this before, and much better, on Erotica. Ditto for car mechanic speak as sex metaphor “Body Shop,” which feels like a leftover from Hard Candy and should have stayed there.
But those few blips don’t override the greatness of “Heartbreak City,” another strong power ballad. What’s up with all of these power ballads that I like? They were always the weakest spots in Madonna’s canon for me but here they’re gold. On “Veni Vidi Vici” Madonna takes self-reference to dizzying heights and she details her entire career through lyrics based on her previous song titles. It’s rather genius and plays better than you’d think. Doesn’t need Nas though.
She closes the deluxe album with the title track and hopefully this gets the club remix it deserves because it’s a brilliant song. Another in the line of songs looking at her past and helping her understand who she is today. It’s full of personal revelations and reminiscence and it’s a great closer.
Even if Rebel Heart isn’t a great album on par with Ray of Light or Erotica, it’s definitely a very good one. One could almost take those 25 tracks and make a playlist for a perfect Rebel Heart album, subjectively, of course. Either way, Madonna succeeds big time with her 13th record and she understands her place, both personally and professionally in today’s pop world.