With her new album, Rebel Heart, Madonna has breathed life into her recording career. Contrasting the mixed bags that were Hard Candy and MDNA, this new record is warm, organic, more melodic, and diverse in its approach to cataloging this moment of the diva's life and career. In many ways, the 19 track deluxe edition reminds me of Alanis Morissette's sprawling 17 track opus Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998). Both records cover a lot of territory, delving into the autobiography of each performer and playing with different pop textures to express those ideas. While they could be considered messy records, they also sound true because of how much they want to encompass. Rebel Heart explores the dichotomies Madonna has come to represent, namely the boundary-pushing star and the sensitive romantic artist (thus the title). It's the best album she has released in a decade.
Rebel Heart successfully moves between its two stances because the tunes are catchy, Madonna delivers strong vocal performances, and all of the songs have a natural feel, even when they aim for the club. The ballads rely on acoustic guitar, and the dance tunes avoid too much polish, playing with reggae textures ("Unapologetic Bitch"), folktronica ("Devil Pray"), lazy beats ("Holy Water"), and classic house (the excellent first single, "Living for Love").
While I enjoy the dance tracks, the softer, introspective tunes work best for me. (I am, after all, part of camp Ray of Light in the Madonna fandom.) With great songs like "Ghosttown" and "Joan of Arc," Madonna is interested in being bare with her listener. Take for example the wonderful "Body Shop," a flirty tune about having sex that plays with eastern sounds, during which Madonna gives one of the best, subtle vocal performances of her career. It is the kind of song pop radio does not cater to right now, but it's exciting Madonna takes us there. She also does a great job on the title track, which sounds like it could be performed with a garage band as well as on an arena stage. "Rebel Heart" talks about a woman who has chosen to walk a difficult road as a provocateur, but also has to face her own heartbreak and narcissism in the process. This sounds like heavy stuff, but the energetic production, use of guitar, and Madonna's earthy performance make it a success.
After listening to this album for almost a week, one of the songs that sticks with me the most is "Wash All Over Me." Like "Rebel Heart," it's a tune about self-reflection. Madonna sings "Who am I to decide what should be done? If this is the end then let it come. Let it come. Let it rain, rain all over me," while drums march below her vocal. It's a bare and revealing moment about embracing change from an artist who has faced sexism and ageism, among other challenges, over the course of three decades in the public eye. The music industry has changed a lot during Madonna's career, but here she is--today, in this moment, doing her best to make honest, strong pop music. Rebel Heart is an important and alive album that is just as complex as its star.