Rebel Heart by Madonna – A Review by a Non-sycophantic Mega-fan

Rebel Heart

Madonna’s new album, Rebel Heart, hardly feels new at all. Back in December, embryonic demos leaked all over the internet. Along with histrionic claims of “artistic rape”, Madge responded by issuing some of the tracks earlier than planned. The net result is that the Queen of Pop’s latest record has actually been around for ages. Despite this, the critics have largely hailed Rebel Heart as a return to form following M’s previous, slightly shaky outings – namely Hard Candy and MDNA – and I’m inclined to agree. So here’s my review of La Ciccone’s rather epic 13th studio album…

Madonna hasn’t put out a concept album in years. The last time was back in 1992 with Erotica. Interestingly, like Rebel Heart, that album was one of her few long players that failed to clinch the chart top spot, stalling at number two on both sides of the Atlantic. Mind you, bagging a silver medal when you’re ushering in your 33rd year in the music biz is nothing to be sniffed at. But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt – in future, be wary of running too far with an idea at the expense of the music.

An album of two halves

The central theme on this outing focuses on the album’s title – Rebel Heart. You could say the left ventricle channels Madonna’s inner Che Guevara while the right pumps romance, desire and vulnerability. The result, though, is slightly bipolar – the record veers dramatically between ‘rebellious’ trailblazing electro-grooves and thoughtful, sweeping ballads full of ‘heart’. It’s an interesting dichotomy but does mean some songs sit uncomfortably with one another. Perhaps Madge should have stuck to her guns and issued Rebel Heart as a two-disc album. In a recent interview with BBC DJ Jo Whiley, Madonna revealed that this twinset idea (which I think would have worked a treat) was poo-pooed by her record label’s marketers. Apparently they thought that would be too confusing. Now there’s irony.

Less rebel, more heart please

With the exception of soul-tinged Living For Love, the faster-paced dance tracks tend to fail in their bid to be cutting-edge. Instead, they conform to the current trend for skew-whiff mash-ups. Granted, some of the rebel tracks manage to keep their head above water but the majority sink like stones and should never have made the final cut. In fact, Rebel Heart is a prime example of why every artist should take the time to kill their darlings – at least five tracks should never have seen the light of day. That said, when Rebel Heart is good it’s phenomenally good. Step forward the show-stopping quintet that is Hold Tight, Joan of Arc, Inside Out, Wash All Over Me and Messiah.

All rapped up?

Some of Rebel Heart’s schizoid personality is due in part to the sheer number of collaborators roped in to work on it. Hit-makers like Avicii, Diplo and Kanye West have all put their stamp on proceedings and the end result is a lack of overall cohesion. There’s also an over-reliance on guest stars – cameos include rappers Nas, Chance and Nicki Minaj, plus a surprise appearance by Mike Tyson. Instead of elevating tracks, they actually hold them back. Frankly, I’m surprised Madonna hasn’t figured out that she delivers her best work when she teams up with just one key partner – I give you Patrick Leonard, William Orbit and Stuart Price.

Make way for Madge

Rebel Heart goes into warp drive when Madonna pushes her harem of supposed hip producers to one side and takes centre stage herself. She sounds supremely confident and relaxed on this record. What’s more, she’s in confessional mode – we’ve not seen her this candid since Ray of Light. As if that wasn’t enough to be going on with, Madge has rekindled her love affair with former bedfellows, religion and sex. But it’s not always a sure-fire result. Madonna’s appetite for songs with an OTT sexual vibe, such as Holy Water and S.E.X., sees her end up in Cringeville-on-Sea. However, when she strikes the right note, like Body Shop and Best Night, the sexiness sizzles.

A good effort

While Rebel Heart will never challenge the ultimate Madonna triumvirate that is Like A Prayer, Ray of Light and Confessions On A Dancefloor, there’s enough solid song-writing on this outing for it to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Madonna’s trio of highly-commended runners up, Erotica, Bedtime Stories and Music.

Here’s my track-by-track rundown to Rebel Heart

1. Living For Love

The tent-pole of the album, this punchy opening number will forever be remembered as the soundtrack to #CapeGate – that now legendary moment when Madonna took a tumble at the Brit Awards. As well as generating a host of tabloid-worthy puns (Limping For Love, Too Much Material, Girl?, Unlucky Stair), not to mention some inspired internet memes (check out Madominos), Living For Love sparked a rumour that Madge had actually orchestrated the stage dive. After all, with lyrics like “took me to heaven, let me fall down” and “lifted me up and watched me stumble”, the cloak debacle did have a whiff of PR stunt about it.

Brit Awards

But I don’t buy the conspiracy theories. That was one helluva fall and Madge looked visibly shaken as she picked herself up and matador-ed her way through an otherwise slick routine that segued bullfighting with new-wave vogue. Talk about cape calm and carry on… But enough about all that. What about the song itself?

Brit Awards 2

Living For Love fuses Vogue-esque house-jam piano (with none other than Alicia Keys tinkling the ivories) with gospel strains akin to Like A Prayer. But this isn’t a pic’n’mix of Lady Madonna’s pop past. It’s a soulful piece of radio-friendly shufflebeat with a triumphant, phoenix-from-the-ashes mantra, “I’m living for love, I’m not giving up, I’m gonna carry on”. But let’s be clear – Living For Love isn’t a Madge dancefloor heavyweight à la Into The Groove or Hung Up. That said, it’s a welcome up-tempo addition to a track-list that’s rather ballad heavy. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of beautifully-crafted slow numbers on Rebel Heart but the record as a whole is perhaps lacking on the club classiques front for which Madonna is revered.

2. Devil Pray

There’s something distinctly Hicksville USA about this folk outing. You can imagine some dungaree-wearing hillbilly banjo-ing his way through this tune from the comfort of a rocking chair somewhere in the Smoky Mountains. Even Madge’s Minnie Mouse vocals add a touch of Yankee Doodle Dandy to proceedings. But it’s only ye-ha-tastic up to a point. Mid-way through the track, deep beats, dirty scratching and Cyberman-like backing vocals rise up, giving this number a shot of cutting-edge cool. Plus, the roll call of narcotics referenced in the song, including, but not limited to, sniffing glue (do people still sniff glue?!), prevents Devil Pray turning into Jolene. Talking of drugs, Devil Pray is Madonna’s answer to the Grange Hill ‘Just Say No’ campaign – albeit slightly less finger-wagging. The message is one of sobriety – drink and drugs give you momentary highs but no long-term fulfilment. In short, Devil Pray is a song about finding some substance in your life that isn’t, well, a substance. Soul-searching aside, this track sees Madonna stepping out once more with her long-standing I-love-to-hate-you playmate, Catholicism. And it works a treat. In the space of two verses, she’s name-checked Mother Mary and Lucifer to great effect. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With titles including Holy Water, Joan of Arc and Messiah, Rebel Heart isn’t short on papal-referencing pop.

3. Ghosttown

Rebel Heart pitches down a gear with Ghosttown. Madonna’s answer to Mad World, it’s a bleak, yet utterly captivating, electro-ballad set in an eerie dystopian future and proves unequivocally that Madonna is way more than just a helium-voiced disco hoofer. This girl knows how to deliver a serious dose of gravitas – and she does it with aplomb. “Tell me how we got this far, every man for himself, everything’s gone to hell” muses an unusually melancholic Madge. A fellow blogger and friend of mine, Tom Hocknell, recently summed up Madonna’s delivery on this track as follows… “as the music falls away like a melted glacier, her voice almost cracks in the fragile accapella”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. What’s more, the production is wonderfully pared back, creating a desolate sonic landscape that allows a rarely-heard Madge to step forward to the mic. Her crisp vocals add a sense of pathos we’ve not touched base with since Live To Tell. But despite all these plaudits, Ghosttown falls at the final hurdle. Suffering from the same almost-but-not-quite-there syndrome as Living For Love, it’s never going to make the Madonna canon of song. Ballads like Crazy For You, Rain, You’ll See and Frozen deliver far more tingle factor. That said, you just know that this will be the sway-along-with-your-lighter-in-the-air anthem when Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour drops in the summer.

4. Unapologetic Bitch

On the run-up to Rebel Heart’s release, Madonna worked #unapologeticbitch to great promotional effect, signing off all her Instagram posts with the provocative hashtag. It did the trick, whipping die-hard fans into a hysterical frenzy. The song itself, however, doesn’t deliver quite as much excitement. Again, it’s a case of oh-so close. Sentiment-wise, it’s an acidic ditty that sticks two fingers firmly up at a cheating ex. Madonna quips, “you know you never really knew how much your selfish bullshit cost me, well fuck you”. But rather than being clever and cutting, there’s something ‘precocious teenager’ in the delivery which isn’t altogether convincing. On the plus side, Unapologetic Bitch lets Madonna dip her toe in previously uncharted musical territory. It’s a fun, ska-pop loper with reggae base notes dropped in here and there for good measure. But what spoils the track are the baffling and rather distracting airhorn blasts. Bitch, leave that that crap to Usher. And be unapologetic about it.

5. Illuminati

This track is scuzzy, grimey and sleazy. But then what do you expect? Illuminati was produced by Kanye West (*dry wretches into bin*). As for Madonna’s input, her voice sounds reedy as she lazily picks her way through a roll call of big-hitting names – the rumoured puppet-masters of the new world order that includes everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Queen Elizabeth. While I’m all for experimental Madonna (let’s not forget how mould-breaking Ray of Light and Music both were), this is one musical dabble that should never have got beyond demo level.

6. Bitch I’m Madonna

Like a Vitamin C tablet dropped into a glass of water, this track effervesces with frenetic energy. So much so, in fact, that at times it’s in danger of going into nuclear meltdown. Sonically, it’s a berserk portion of EDM. There are bonkers kazoos, schizophrenic synths and videogame bleeps that sound like Pac-man on acid. And while the bpms are cranked to the max, the melody sits somewhere between a nursery rhyme and a ner-ner-ner-ner schoolyard chant sung by a brat with tourettes. Hmm, maybe Madonna should have given this track to Miley Cyrus? While certainly fresh and bold, overall, Bitch I’m Madonna feels slightly awkward and out of place on Rebel Heart – and the superfluous rap, courtesy of Madonna’s new best friend, Nicki Minaj, does nothing to help matters. Although penned long before the Radio 1 scandal, you could say Bitch I’m Madonna is a middle finger up to the powers that be at the BBC. The playlist committee recently refused to play Rebel Heart’s first single, Living For Love, decreeing that 56-year-old Madge is past her sell by date. As such, Madge was relegated to the middle-of-the-road old folks home that is Radio 2. Oh, the fools…

7. Hold Tight

This is what Madonna of 2015 does best – a grown-up, intelligent, mid-tempo track. With lyrics like, “we live with no limits, we dance in the middle of freezing rain, with you and I in it, we’ll survive the eye of a hurricane”, Hold Tight is an unashamed celebration of love with strings very much attached. Sound-wise, it begins by serving up a smorgasbord of ethereal, swooshy synths which give way to the rat-a-tat-tat of a marching band. At points, there’s something distinctly Sky Fits Heaven about it. So much so, in fact, Hold Tight wouldn’t feel out of place on 1998’s Ray of Light album. Indeed, if William Orbit had been given a song-writing credit, I’d have believed it.

8. Joan of Arc

This isn’t the first time La Ciccone has been inspired by France’s poster girl. During 2012’s MDNA Tour, Madonna donned chainmail and karate-chopped her way across stage as the warrior maiden while performing the highly underrated dance track that is I’m Addicted. However, this latest embodiment of the saint couldn’t be any further removed if it tried. Joan of Arc is an incredibly tender and deeply personal offering akin to Promise To Try and Oh Father. At points it teeters on the edge of self-pity but Madonna manages to temper being overly mawkish by employing a skippy, sunshiny hook that sparks memories of Dear Jessie. The big takeaway from this song is that Madonna ain’t the hard-as-nails robo-bitch we’re led to believe. It would seem there is, in fact, a chink in her cone-bra armour. Through lines like, “each time they write a hateful word, dragging my soul into the dirt, I want to die, never admit it, but it hurts”, Madonna reveals that the unrelenting press dissection dents her pop force-field. As Madge’s recent back flip down a flight of stairs reminded us only too well, the woman is “only human” after all.

9. Iconic

Boxer Mike Tyson opens this track with a rousing intro that neatly sums up Madge’s unfaltering blonde ambition, “I’m the best the world has ever seen – the best ever, I’m somebody you’ll never forget cause I work hard and sweat in my tears, I can’t be stopped, I’m never falling again and if I did I’d come back!”. It’s an impressive speech but I just wish Madonna had sung it instead of giving that misogynistic, ear-biting thug any airtime. That’s not my only beef with Iconic. It highlights a general malaise that plagues Rebel Heart, namely Madonna’s obsession with featuring guest rappers. Seriously, they pop up like unwanted zits. In the case of Iconic, it’s Chicago’s Chance The Rapper. Why does this grate so much? Firstly, Madonna doesn’t need a supporting cast. And secondly it suggests Madge is majorly out of synch with her fan base who (sweeping generalisation alert) couldn’t give a rat’s arse about rappers. Unless they’re called Missy Elliott. We like her. Anyway, as the title suggests, Iconic is a song all about the fame game. Madonna points out “I-can, I-con, two letters apart”, reminding us mere mortals that raw talent mixed with sheer graft is a winning combination. And I guess if anyone can lecture us about how to get to the top, the Queen of Pop can. After all, she stands alone as the last great megastar – Prince disappeared up his own arsehole long ago and Michael Jackson reached stratospheric levels of crazy before moonwalking off this mortal coil. In theory, Iconic shouldn’t be my cup of tea. To all intents and purposes, it’s a train wreck of a song. But somehow, just somehow, it manages to hang together. I think it’s thanks to the juxtaposition of dirty dancehall bass versus euphoric Ibiza crescendos. The end result is that I want to dance my socks off to it in some sweatbox down Vauxhall way. Oh, and the Pet Shop Boys-esque vocoder vocals are a nice touch.

10. HeartBreakCity

I can’t help but wonder whether ex-hubby Guy Ritchie or former toy boy lover Brahim Zaibat provided the inspiration for this song. As the title suggests, HeartBreakCity is a dramatic nosedive into post-relationship hell. Cue lyrics that are one part vulnerable and two parts full of bile… “I curse the day we met” spits a bitter Madonna through clipped consonants before a more wistful Madge follows up with “your memory is haunting me, I wish I could forget”. The end result is an emotional barometer that sees Madge bearing her teeth one moment and sobbing into her pillow the next. Musically, there’s something rather Lana del Ray-esque about this track. The doom-filled narrative is chaperoned by lamenting, almost funeral dirge, piano chords, staccato drum beats and a chilling lone vocal. It’s a great example of less is more.

11. Body Shop

With its hand claps and sitar-like strings, this quirky little number is like the bizarre lovechild of True Blue and Shanti Ashtangi. You can almost imagine a group of Brooklyn girls playing jump rope to this ditty – that is if the lyrics weren’t so, erm, suggestive. On the surface, you could be forgiven for thinking Madge is putting her car in for an MOT. But Lady M has turned up at the garage looking for an altogether different kind of servicing. “I’m in need a tune up… bad” she flirts. Body Shop could easily have fallen foul of ‘here’s a theme, I’ll run with it’ – after all, Madonna takes the body-as-a-car metaphor to ridiculous levels, throwing every mechanic-related line known to man at this track, gaskets, fenders and all. Thankfully, the song manages to sidestep being too goofy due to its simplistic pattercake-style arrangement and bubblegum lightness of touch. It’s the more sophisticated cousin of Candy Shop and at times recalls vintage Madonna – albeit laden with some serious grease monkey innuendo. Kwik Fit, anyone?

12. Holy Water

Madonna hasn’t put out something this overtly sexual since 1992’s eyebrow-raising Sex book. Of course, along with religion, sexytime has always been one of Madge’s favourite subjects. Her now iconic performance of Like A Virgin on the Blond Ambition Tour is a case in point. Sporting a golden bullet-bra corset, Madonna writhed around on a red velvet bed, before crying out ‘God’. Here, Lady M slides between the sheets once more, this time to perform some kind of erotic eucharist – only there’s no sign of wine or wafers. No prizes for guessing what’s on the menu at the Church of Madonna as Ms Ciccone instructs her lover to “get down low”. Holy Water is the second track produced by Kanye West and sees Madonna’s high-pitched tones set to a cool Geogio Moroder-style bassline along with some ecstatic moaning straight out of When Harry Met Sally. Quite why, however, he felt the need to chuck in the immortal ‘strike a pose’ line from Vogue is beyond me. While sampling this 1990 chart-topper worked a treat on Deeper And Deeper, it feels utterly incongruous here. And it’s not just this track. At various points on Rebel Heart, Madonna allows her past to mingle too much with her present by siphoning odds and sods from The Immaculate Collection and beyond. The result is dubious at best – Madonna is always best when she’s looking forward, not back. What’s more, while sexy tunes are arguably Madonna’s home turf, Holy Water actually sounds more like a Britney Spears song circa Gimme More. And the rather throwaway lyric “bitch get off my pole” sounds like it’s been nicked from Nicola Roberts’ Beat Of My Drum. All in all, this is an annoyingly catchy song but feels out of synch on the album.

13. Inside Out

Produced by hip-hop heavyweight, Mike Dean, this restrained slow-burner is Rebel Heart’s hidden gem. An ominous, pulsing, almost porno bassline (not dissimilar to the opening strains of Erotica) ensures the tone of this track is set to steamy from the word go. Add Madonna’s sensual come hither come-ons to the mix – “on your knees, confess to me” – and you’ve got all the ingredients for a sextape soundtrack. But just when you think it’s about to climax, the song totally shifts direction. All of sudden the industrial beats and disorientating synths give way to heart-warming piano chords and soothing lullaby-like strings. Similarly, Madonna’s vocals morph from temptress to tender lover. And that’s the beauty of this song – it’s two-faced for all the right reasons. At its core, Inside Out is an examination of the interplay between lust and love and Madonna pulls it off exquisitely.

14. Wash All Over Me

I think this could be my favourite track on Rebel Heart. The leaked Avici dance version blew me away when I finally managed to get my grubby little hands on it. Madonna’s soft vocals teamed with swooping club beats shot me back to 1998 when I heard Ray of Light for the very first time.

That’s not to say that the final, more sedate edit isn’t impressive too. In fact, I totally understand how Wash All Over Me’s first incarnation didn’t quite marry up with the melancholy of the song itself. And so in place of pounding Ibiza soundscenes we are treated to a contemplative ballad that works rock guitar, timpani drums and grandiose chorals to great effect. I just wish the dance version had been included as a bonus track so I could skip between the two edits dependent on my mood. The real coup for me, though, is Madonna’s calm, considered and, dare I say it, defeatist delivery. Pondering a relationship that’s slowly breaking down, she scores notes of pure resignation suggesting The Power of Good-bye. The complete antithesis of Express Yourself’s rousing call to action, the emotional ennui of Wash All Over Me is arguably more empowering.

15. Best Night (Deluxe version)

Okay, it’s confession o’clock. I once made a playlist of simmering, sultry and downright sexy Madonna tunes which included the likes of Erotica, Secret Garden and Forbidden Love. I called it my ‘Booty Call Collection’. Trust me, it didn’t get played much. Anyway, suffice to say that Best Night would have fitted in a treat. After all, it’s not for nothing that Justify My Love gets sampled on this track, creeping over a softly-spoken word run. Best Night is a sweaty, animalistic and thoroughly intoxicating number. As well as whispering sweet nothings in your ear, Madonna expertly plants a throbbing, almost tribal earworm in your head. At times this track sounds like it’s set in some dimly-lit, afterhours film noir cocktail bar, while at others it recalls Skin, right down to the hynoptic Arabic flutes that conjure up exotic nights in Moroccan souks. In a nutshell, if foreplay were music, it’d sound like this.

16. Veni Vedi Vici (Deluxe version)

Oh gawd – another rapper pops up on this track. This time it’s Nas – should I know who he is? Again, he’s superfluous to requirement, especially given that Madonna herself turns lyrical master on this number, recounting her personal back-story through the medium of her past hits… “I justified my love, I made you say a little prayer, they had me crucified, you know I had to take it there, I opened up my heart, I learnt the power of good-bye, I saw a ray of light, music saved my life”. Written down, this song almost looks like clever poetry. But when you listen to it… ouch. All of the self-referential strands sound overly contrived, turning the whole thing into an oh-no-she-didn’t cringe-fest. Upon first hearing I was quite content to play ‘spot the song title’. However the novelty soon wore off. Mind you, the “when I struck a pose, all the gay boys lost their minds” line still makes me smile. Veni Vedi Vici’s only other saving grace is Diplo’s cool production that teams tinny beats against nostalgic strings.

17. S.E.X. (Deluxe version)

I think I spoke too soon. Earlier on I hailed the euphemism-rife Holy Water as the most overtly sexual song Madonna’s put out in a long time. I stand corrected. This bonus track on the deluxe version of the album is pure unadulterated filth from beginning to end. Featuring an S&M shopping list that would make Christian Grey blush, this unimaginatively titled track is not for the faint hearted. Skittish synths, sinister strings and freaky music-box chimes accompany a particularly sassy Madonna as she lisps (presumably through her oh-so-ghetto grillz) her way through an inventory of love dungeon must-haves… “Twisted rope, handcuffs, blindfolds, string of pearls, neckties, silk scarf, silver chains, pretty girls, thigh-highs, leather mask, high heels, golden mask, perfume, switchblade, Epsom, novocaine, chopsticks, underwear, barber soap, dental chair, fish nets, satin sheets, garter belt, raw meat, candle light, keyhole, leather belt, meat stove, golden shower, latex thong, liquorice whip, strap it on”. Talk about 50 Shades of Madge…

18. Messiah (Deluxe version)

With lines like “I am the promise that you cannot keep, reap what you sow, find what you seek, I am the sorceress down in the deep, I am the earth under your feet, I am the moon with no light of my own, you are the sun, guarding a throne” you could be forgiven for thinking this is a wishy-washy ballad laden with lyrical clichés. However, delve a little deeper and you’ll discover this is actually a bewitching tune about love potions, candle-covered altars and necromancy. In terms of production, Messiah is a wonderfully simple track, igniting memories of Pray For Spanish Eyes, minus the castanets. The first half of this regal song features just Madonna (in almost Evita voice) accompanied by a piano melody that gently rises and falls like a Victorian carousel. Velvety orchestral strings then break through before revealing a delightful oboe bridge. The overall effect is that Messiah has a touch of Les Mis drama about it which raises this number up into the realms of Baroque pop ballad.

19. Rebel Heart (Deluxe version)

There’s something distinctly American High School about this track – down to the Hanson-like guitar riffs and Taylor Swift hand claps and finger clicks. But don’t be fooled. This song is anything but teeny-bopper, erupting into a mature chorus that feels like springtime. More autobiography than pop song, it charts the story of Madonna. But not Madonna the megastar, rather Madonna the outsider. This lyric is a case in point, “hearing my father say, told you so, told you so, why can’t you be like the other girls, I said oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”. La Ciccone paints an interesting picture – despite being a pop supremo, she’s always been something of a mainstream rebel. Over the years she’s pushed the envelope, daring to go where many other artists would never contemplate, whether that’s taking on the Church or speaking out about sexism, racism homophobia… you name it. And she’s still blazing a trail, now wading into the ageism arena. And she makes a valid point. Why at 56 shouldn’t she express an opinion? Why shouldn’t she be sexy? Why should she grow old gracefully? And, rather fittingly, the deluxe album’s closing song sums up that notion wonderfully – once a rebel heart always a rebel heart.

20. Beautiful Scars (Super-deluxe version)

This is Madonna’s ‘take me or leave me’ love song… “I think you’re confusing me with someone else, I won’t apologise for being myself, take me with my beautiful scars, I love you the way that you are, I come to you with all of my flaws”. Her delivery is wonderfully light, injecting just the right quota of vulnerability. Like so many of the tracks on this album, Beautiful Scars has a distinctly early 90s house feel thanks to its use of solitary piano chords. But flirty bongos underscored by a deep paso doble bassline push this song into Argentine tango territory. In fact, you can imagine Madonna fast-footing her way across stage, latino-style, to this tune, a bit like she did back in 2001 on the Drowned World Tour for What It Feels Like For A Girl. This is by no means the best song Madonna’s ever written but it’s a solid mid-tempo album-filler and should have definitely made the main track-list.

21. Borrowed Time (Super-deluxe version)

An acoustic guitar opens this number in much the same way as the demo version we heard at the tail-end of last year. The big difference, however, is that the leaked Avicii cut was much, much stronger. Gone are the house breaks and uplifting clubland beats, replaced by slightly twee-sounding beep-beep synths. To be honest, I’m not sure La Ciccone was wise to abandon the earlier edit. In a rare move for Madge, she seems to have played things overly safe and in so doing has castrated the track.

But, production impotency issues aside, Borrowed Time gets a much needed hit of Viagra thanks to a classic Madonna bridge and chorus that keeps the momentum going. And, while the lyrics are a bit ‘world peace’ in places, they still kind of work… “it all comes down to who’s rich of poor, virgin or whore, it doesn’t matter what you’re praying for, death or life, your truth or mine, it doesn’t matter underneath it all”. This song deserves a place on the album proper.

22. Addicted (Super-deluxe version)

Addicted is a world away from its near-namesake, I’m Addicted – the dancefloor stomper from 2012’s MDNA. Interestingly, Madonna originally called this track The One That Got Away but changed it because Katy Perry had already laid claim to the title for one of her singles. That said, the words ‘the one that got away’ and ‘addicted’ are still part of the song. Addicted begins with a mysterious – borderline sinister – guitar intro that could easily be the opening number to a Bond film. Similarly, the dark, slinky lyrics have the feel of a 007 theme… “I’m under your spell, you pulled me in, took me down with your poisonous touch”. All that’s missing is a girl daubed in gold body paint dancing erotically in front of flames. But just when you think you know which direction the song is heading in, it does a complete volte face, swerving into indie-rock territory. The last time we heard Madonna employ a guitar thrash like this was back when Mirwais was at the helm of American Life. And, in a similar vein to that album’s acoustic-electro styling, the baton is then passed to a pounding synth bass that mirrors the chorus melody. There’s also something distinctly old-school Madge about Addicted. So much so that it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside I Know It and Burning Up on her self-titled 1982 breakthrough. Why this song wasn’t included on the standard release of Rebel Heart, God only knows. It’s a super-catchy track that is infinitely better than the likes of Illuminati, Bitch I’m Madonna and Holy Water.

23. Graffiti Heart (Super-deluxe version)

‘Reductive’. That’s how Madonna famously referred to Lady Gaga during a now infamous TV interview. Reason being, Madge wasn’t overly impressed with Gaga’s hit Born This Way. To say that is was a blatant rip off of Express Yourself is putting it mildly – quite how Gaga wasn’t hauled over the plagiarism coals in court, I don’t know. Still, they say revenge is sweet and Madonna certainly had the last laugh. On 2012’s MDNA Tour M segued Born This Way into her majorette-inspired rendition of Express Yourself, thereby proving in one fell swoop that Gaga was a copycat extraordinaire. This time around, however, the shoe seems to be on the other foot. Gaga could conceivably argue that with Graffiti Heart, Madge is cribbing her ideas. After all, espousing the power of art as a catalyst for change and a symbol for freedom of speech is pretty much what Gaga set out to do with Art Pop. However, Gaga must be spitting feathers. With its tripping piano intro and drum-kit showdown, Graffiti Heart tells a tale that Lady G can only dream about – namely Madonna’s first-hand connection to pop art greats Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. It brings an element of personal authenticity to proceedings that must surely leave wannabe Gaga green with envy. Maybe Madonna should have included the Two Steps Behind Me demo on the album after all. Lady Gaga, this one’s for you…

Talking of songs that never made it past demo stage, I wish Madonna had included Trust No Bitch and Never Let You Go on Rebel Heart. Fingers crossed she banks them for her next album.

Leotards, Lace Gloves & Pointy Bras



Our Glorious Leader

OGL turned 55 yesterday. In case you don’t know, OGL stands for Our Glorious Leader. And no, that’s not David Cameron. He’s more of a KBL – Kinda Beige Leader. OGL does, of course, refer to Madonna. And, despite her pillow cheeks, crow-like hands and continued dabblings with Kabollocks, she’s still the undisputed Queen of Pop. Last year alone, for example, she scored the biggest-selling tour, her MDNA album went to No.1 in 50-odd countries and her performance at the Superbowl halftime show went on to be the most-watched show in the history of American TV. This level of continued success is no mean feat given the increasingly disposable culture we live in. ‘Sticking’ in today’s fickle material world is easier said than done. But if anyone can pull it off, I guess it’s the self-proclaimed Material Girl.

Soundtrack To My Life

Like so many people, I’ve grown up with Madonna. In fact, it’s fair to say she provided the soundtrack to my childhood, teens and even my early adult life. And now, as a 30-somethinger, she’s still figures heavily on my playlists. Not bad when you consider she and I started out together on vinyl over 3 decades ago. What’s more, M has managed to survive in the ever-changing landscape of music while most of her contemporaries have all fallen by the wayside. The triumvirate of pop that was Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna is no more: Prince disappeared up his own backside while poor old Michael went from genius to grotesque before finally popping his clogs. These days, Madonna stands alone as the last of the true mega-stars.

Genre Shifting

So what’s the secret to her success? Well, there’s that oft-quoted phrase, ‘she constantly reinvents herself’. While it’s a total cliche, it also happens to be true. Madonna realised early on in her career that in order to remain relevant you have to embrace change – or go one better and lead it. As such, she became a master of transformation, rooting out happening producers, keeping a close eye on club culture and continually updating her sound. Leaf through her back catalogue and you’ll see she’s ticked off just about every genre going: pop, dance, electronica, techno, folk, country, gospel, R’n’B, funk, power ballads, acid rock… hell, she’s even had a crack at Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. Admittedly, some of her musical outings have been more successful than others but one thing she cannot be accused of is being ‘safe’. While she’s always got into the groove, she’s never got stuck in one.

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Each aural escapade has also been accompanied by a different look. The woman’s like a chameleon, having morphed from a lace glove-wearing punk in the Eighties to a high-kicking granny in a leotard in the Noughties by way of a conical bra-ed superwoman in the Nineties. And that’s before we’ve even thought about her stints as a geisha, a cowgirl, a gangster’s moll, a flamenco dancer, a freedom fighter, a bride-to-be and, oh yes, a hitchhiker in the buff. My personal fave was when she performed Vogue at the MTV Music Awards back in 1990 as Marie Antoinette, complete with powdered wig and bustled gown. Again, no-one can say that the girl doesn’t try to shake things up.

Long Live The Queen

For me, it’s this fusion of new sounds and styles that has ensured La Ciccone‘s longevity. Each time she’s released an album it’s as if she’s reborn as a totally different pop star. It’s a clever strategy – reincarnate yourself so people never have enough time to get bored of you – and certainly one that pretenders to her throne, like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, have all tried to emulate. One thing’s for sure, I still love Madonna as much as I did all those years ago when I first listened to True Blue with my Sony Walkman clipped onto my belt. So happy birthday Madge – long may you reign.