Rebel Heart (Deluxe Edition)

Madonna

Interscope, 2015

http://www.madonna.com

REVIEW BY: Mark Millan

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/10/2015

One who needs no introduction has been at it now for over thirty years, hence there is no introduction to this review of her new album – just straight into album number thirteen of Madonna’s illustrious career. 

This deluxe edition of Rebel Heart  (which is frustratingly available in several different versions) is a sprawling, enthralling and entertaining 19-track suite of pop music that shifts between good to great songs that mainly stick to the central themes of live and let live and following one’s heart. Madonna worked with several producers (as per usual) but the main collaborators were Avicii and Diplo, with whom sessions throughout 2014 became so prolific that enough material to fill two albums (or one double) was completed by year’s end. 

The album is a definite change of direction and pace from Madonna’s previous three albums, which could not have been a more welcome relief for this reviewer. Confessions On A Dance Floor (from 2005) was an all-out disco inspired affair that suffered from that very theme and didn’t feature enough memorable moments for me to revisit much in the decade now since its release. Smacking of desperation, 2008’s Hard Candy was (and still is) a woeful attempt at remaining relevant and courting the Hip-Hop/R&B crowd, which fell flat and deservedly received some of the worst reviews of Madge’s career—it remains her worst ever release by far. Resurrection however was swift with the release of the fun and sexy MDNA (2012) album that had the potential to be great, but suffered from an uneven track list and from having some of its best moments (“I Fucked Up” and “Beautiful Killer”) omitted and only available on a bonus disc with the deluxe edition.

Rebel Heart however, is the best album Madonna has recorded since 1998’s Ray Of Light, some 17 years ago. Some old and annoying habits remain however, mainly just name-dropping her previous hits (too many to mention here) and recycling lyrics that by now are preaching to the converted and therefore unnecessary. The positives though are a-plenty and the biggest compliment (and surprise) that I give for this record is Madonna’s vocal performance across the entire album.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Unlike so many artists of today (and Madge herself has been guilty of this too) who disguise their vocal limitations in a wash of sonic “enhancements” that leave them all sounding like cyborgs, Madonna’s vocals here are up-front in the mix and largely untouched. One of the great falsehoods that critics of Madonna’s over the years have leveled at her is the fact that she can’t sing, which was probably made more prominent due to her decision to lip-sync too often in her shows and rely more and more on spoken word and rap collaborators. Most of which have been completely unnecessary, as evidenced here by the fact that her voice sounds fantastic as she has delivered some of her most inspired vocal performances in years (“Ghosttown,” “Joan Of Arc” and “Wash All Over Me”). 

Rebel Heart (for this 19-track version) is also a surprisingly even-tempered and coherent affair. While it does contain a few weaker tracks (“Hold Tight” and “Living For Love,” the lead single), there are no duds at all to be found here—just heaps of really good pop songs that should entertain even the toughest of critics. Possibly the album’s best song (and my personal favorite) is the beautiful piano-led ballad “HeartBreakCity,” which is a lament of love gone bad, and the direct and heartfelt lyrics only leave one thing in question—the identity of the chap who cut and run. 

Of the remaining ballads, “Ghosttown” and “Joan Of Arc” are the strongest, and although not as deeply confessional as “Promise To Try” or as dark and cryptic as ‘Live To Tell,” they are among her finest ballads in recent years. The first half of the album does contain some carefree and slickly-produced dance tracks (“Unapologetic Bitch,” “Illuminati” and “Bitch I’m Madonna”), the latter of which features a guest spot from Nicki Minaj. As fun as they are, the second half of the album is where the gold is to be found.

 Album highlights come thick and fast here; the understated “Body Shop” and uber-cool “Holy Water” are two of the best songs Madonna has produced in a long time. More great singing on “Inside Out,” more great lyrics on “Wash All Over Me,” and more great sex on (the aptly-titled) “S.E.X.” are further testament to the reality that Rebel Heart gets better and better the longer it goes on. Two more fantastic songs “Veni Vidi Vici” (featuring the brilliant Nas) and “Messiah” are also among the best here, leaving me cursing the inane decision to only release the standard  deluxe edition of Rebel Heart in Australia and not any of the even more deluxe editions available elsewhere. 

It’s a minor gripe and as far as I’m concerned, Madonna is still the undisputed Queen Of Pop and Rebel Heart is not only her best album since Ray Of Light, but one of her best ever.

Rating: A-

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