In December — as Madonna rushed out six songs from Rebel Heart after some truly ugly cyber-bullying — she told Billboard she had recorded so much material that she had considered doing a double album. And indeed, there are at least two albums struggling to come into being amid these 19 tracks.
Oppositions are the animating tension of Rebel Heart: Biting breakup songs like “Heartbreak City” rub up against some of the most absurdly lubricious sex songs of her absurdly lubricious career, like the Kanye West-co-produced “Holy Water,” where she compares her bodily fluids to the song’s title, then proclaims, “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” Declarations of invincibility like “Unapologetic Bitch” are undone by laments over the price of fame and the way that even hearts of steel can break. Her decades-long love affair with house continues alongside her decades-long love affair with singer-songwriter confessions. Religious devotion and earthly love are cross-wired in the Avicii-helmed power ballad “Messiah.” And songs with spare, inventive beats battle for dominance against expertly realized maximalist pop.
There’s one other tension of note: Her determination to outgrow the past and shed her skin (as she puts it on the title track) tangles with her own back catalog. Three different songs refer to old hits, with “Veni Vidi Vici” stringing together titles like a bad Oscar medley: “I opened up my heart, I learned the power of goodbye/I saw a ray of light, music saved my life.” If anyone is entitled to honor herself with her own drag show, it’s her. Still, these backward glances are odd, and perhaps tip the hand that Madonna albums are now launching pads for Madonna tours, where the old songs can come out and play (indeed, on March 2, she announced a 35-city global run).
Or maybe not. Madonna has never gotten the credit she deserves as a musician, or as an album artist. Her essential interests are unchanging — dancefloor ecstasy, European balladry, 1960s pop classicism — but her expression of them finds new articulations. Rebel Heart has 14 producers working in seven different teams and still it sounds exactly like a Madonna album. That includes oddball standouts like “Body Shop,” courtesy of beatmakers DJ Dahi (Drake, Kendrick Lamar) and Blood Diamonds (Grimes), which is propelled by a spare, sitar-like guitar figure.
One of the strangest things about Rebel Heart is how subtle it seems by current standards. These songs unfold slowly, building through foreplay-like intros before hooks are displayed over a shifting series of textures, as if the tracks were being remixed while you’re listening to them. In a short-attention-span world of hits that relentlessly spotlight mini-hook after mini-hook for club DJs to drop in a few bars at a time, they seem positively luxurious and downright intellectual.
There are times you hope for a little more dumb fun — enter Diplo, who turns up on five tracks with his air horn and Caribbean beats and would be welcome on more — and there’s at least one moody ballad too many. But then an aqueous bassline bubbles up and a surge of trance-y pulses sweeps you along to Madonnaland, where introspection and abandon engage in erotic acts of self-actualization. After 32 years, it’s still a great place to be.