Like a virgin, Madonna is pure again. Cleansed of the unbecoming trend grabs that marred the icon’s erratic predecessors — namely the sinfully juvenile Hard Candy, and then MDNA, better but still pastiche — our Blessed Goddess steps back into her ray of light and applies a new shine to an old sound.
For once, Madonna doesn’t keep nostalgia at bay. In fact, during Rebel Heart, her most sophisticated release since 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, she keeps wistfulness close by. The result is tangled, tortured but shockingly authentic, as she basks in all the heyday glory that earned the Michigan dreamer her seat and, eventually, a crown. Whatever life’s done to Madonna lately — the kids are growing up; Madonna’s growing up — she and Rebel Heart are better for it.
Witnessing the 56-year-old in self-reflection mode, à la Ray of Light and American Life, is refreshing, and also, despite Madonna’s refusal to actually age, befitting. She holds your hand during the perseverance paean “Ghosttown,” a surging mid-tempo with a melancholic narrative reminiscent of “This Used to Be My Playground.” The world hurts, Madonna muses, but love heals. The song is a pillar of hope, a theme recycled during the uplifting “Hold Tight;” like a hug as she reluctantly sends her children out into this “mad world,” Mother Madonna is reassuring — hold tight; everything’s gonna be all right — over a sonic spill of rumbling drums and electronic fuzz. Harnessing an organic energy that’s been noticeably lacking from the fabricated Pharrell-produced pop confections of her most recent efforts, Rebel Heart gets into the groove by recapturing the rawness heard particularly on the under-appreciated American Life. “Body Shop” encapsulates that quality best, the sexy innuendo taking a backseat to the very modest, Indian-influenced folk vibe. Her voice wispy and mesmeric, Madonna sounds like she’s leading a yin yoga retreat.
Less effective are Madonna’s unabashed attempts at relevancy, when the sexual provocateur essentially parodies her own cone-wearing self on “Holy Water,” an exercise in excess. Have all the sex you want, Madonna. And by all means, make that pole your bitch. But album-audible moaning? Equating your bits to a Baptismal liquid? Love you, lady, but this just might be a good time to retire the fornication-fueled religious allegories.
The even weaker, slinky bedroom-bumper “S.E.X” doesn’t even bother with thinly veiled metaphors (at one point she randomly drops “raw meat” like an afterthought) as she promises to “take you to a place you will not forget,” but then she doesn’t. And poof. Gone.
Most memorable about Rebel Heart is Madonna as a messenger of love, unity and peace — the sorcerer down in the deep, as she puts it on the deluxe edition’s penultimate powerhouse “Messiah.” There’s an ease about Madonna during these moments of musing, where she looks inward and sends her light outward, and the crown, though briefly, comes off. The ego is disbanded. For once, whether we like it or not, the icon, the diva, the high priestess of pop — she’s real. I can’t be a superhero right now / Even hearts made of steel can break down, she laments on “Joan of Arc,” a surprisingly direct acknowledgement of facets that have, particularly as of late, evaded the star’s essence: sensitivity, candor and sincerity.
It all comes full circle with the title track “Rebel Heart,” the closer. A blast from the past, a content Madonna recounts the trail she blazed for herself — and, obviously, others — through fierce determination and, you know (and she knows), by being a “narcissist.” Madonna’s Rebel Heart album is the nearly lifetime-long result of broken boundaries and bravado … and, for the first time in 10 years, it’s beating stronger than ever.
— Chris Azzopardi