Madonna sets herself some tough challenges on her 12th studio album, “MDNA.” She wants to attack her former husband, keep up the tempo, look relevant and sweep away all those preening young pretenders to her crown.
“There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna,” she has one of those pop princesses, Nicki Minaj, declare on one song.
“MDNA” tries hard, often too hard, and is soaked in slick production. After 30 years in the business, Madonna Louise Ciccone should know she doesn’t need the lavish studio effects of newer stars such as Lady Gaga, Britney Spears or Rihanna.
It’s a better record than was suggested by the first single, “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” That cheerleader number was previewed to 111 million viewers on Feb. 5 at the most-watched Super Bowl Halftime Show in history -- then stalled at No. 10 in the charts. Not content with that piece of disposable pop recalling Toni Basil, Madonna’s lightweight follow-up single “Girl Gone Wild” references Cyndi Lauper’s 1980s disco line “girls, just wanna have fun.”
The first four tracks sound like castoffs from Madonna’s dance-crazed “Hard Candy” from 2008, “Confessions on a Dance Floor” from 2005 and accompanying live releases.
The twist this time is her renewed desire to provoke. While she says “MDNA” is an abbreviation for “Madonna DNA,” it also references the drug MDMA on “I’m Addicted.”
“Gang Bang” -- another misguided title -- has her wanting to shoot a lover and ends “I wanna see him die, over and over and over and over.”
It’s like a Guy Ritchie movie. Her divorce from the U.K. director looms over the record. “Would you have married me if I were poor?” she asks on “Love Spent,” adding “I guess if I was your treasury, you’d have found the time to treasure me.”
In “I Don’t Give A,” Madonna declares “I tried to be your wife, I diminished myself” and “you were so mad at me, who’s got custody? Lawyers, suck it up. Didn’t have a pre-nup.”
As ever, Madonna’s words and singing rarely match her catchy tunes and attitude. She’s happier recalling past glories. “MDNA” opens by quoting from the excellent “Like a Prayer” (1989). The final four tracks reunite her with William Orbit, who produced her glacial “Ray of Light” in 1998.
With Orbit at the helm, the boasting ends. We hear the confessional side of the woman behind the Madonna brand. There’s the acoustic “Masterpiece,” a Golden Globe-winning love song from the film “W.E.” The ballad “Falling Free” is better, all tender strings and a vulnerable voice shorn of bombast.
Madonna, 53, is preparing for another world tour. (The last raised $408 million, the most by a solo artist, according to its promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc.) She has fame and fortune aplenty, of course, yet signs off with the wistful hope that she can “turn around a love again.”
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“MDNA” is released today on Interscope/Live Nation, priced about $10 in the U.S. There’s a deluxe edition for $16, adding five tracks. Download fees vary across services.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)