Music journalists and bloggers have been especially hard on the most recent Madonna LP, MDNA, released mid-March. Maybe because Madonna has crafted such a hard public persona, it is difficult to see her as a sincere musician. Or, maybe being the world's biggest pop star creates a jealous bias. Whatever the case might be, Madonna's newest release does have its virtues, many of which are under-appreciated. Though the album is not her best (a distinction reserved around these parts for Ray of Light), it does boast some of her best dance tracks and ballads in years.
Ageist wisdom would posit that a woman cannot create sexy dance music in her fifties. Let the judgers be damned. Madonna continues to make great club music--house music, in particular. While not all of her experiments on MDNA work, they are testaments to her preoccupation with making us move. "Girl Gone Wild" plays with familiar tropes for the singer, but repackages them in effective way; the track pulses and grinds as it should. The highlight, however, is "Turn Up the Radio"--a road-trip meets love song. Madonna has not seemed so light-hearted in years, as she asks a lover to turn up the radio as they drive aimlessly down the highway, and its adrenaline-inducing explosion at the bridge makes the song really bounce from the speakers.
Yet the most interesting moments on the album are Madonna's ballads. It is easy to forget that she has long been a successful balladeer, despite her limited vocal range. In fact, some might argue that her ordinary voice allows her to create more compelling music about heartbreak and love. If you like "Take a Bow" or "I'll Remember," you will likely enjoy what MDNA has to offer. "Masterpiece" works despite its silly central conceit, and "Falling Free" provides a sweeping orchestral conclusion for the album. These songs allow Madonna to take off her pop-star mask and show us her vulnerability in a way she rarely offers her audience. Still, the best track from the entire project is a b-side featured on the deluxe edition. "I Fucked Up" may be the Queen of Pop's finest moment post 2000, as she reflects on her mistakes and delivers her cleanest vocals in ages. She's still got it, if you listen close enough to give her a chance.