Madonna, Rebel Heart [Super Deluxe Version] (Boy Toy/Live Nation/Interscope)
Madonna’s 13th studio album is an endurance test — both for listener and the indefatigable 56-year-old artist.
Just the gestation of this album, from conception to release, would take the discipline of the hardiest soul. Thankfully, that’s Madonna.
Instead of working with one main producer for musical cohesion as she’s done on her best albums, Like a Prayer (with Patrick Leonard) and Ray of Light (with William Orbit), Madonna corralled nine contemporary producers including Diplo, Kanye West, Avicii, Billboard and Blood Diamonds. Each track — and there are 25 of them on the Super Deluxe version — features Madonna writing with up to five songwriters apiece. Meantime, the demos were stolen and leaked online in December forcing Madonna to complete and rush-release the first batch of six songs. While performing the first single in England last month, she took a hard fall on stage.
Little wonder Madonna sings on the lovingly strummed title track: “I lived my life like a masochist… I took the road less traveled by/And I barely made it out alive/Through the darkness somehow I survived/Tough love, I knew it from the start/Deep down in the depth of my rebel heart.”
To her credit, for all the trendy EDM hardware on the uptempo cuts like the reggae-spliced Unapologetic Bitch or the blaring electronic air horns that sound like mechanized barking robo-dogs on Bitch I’m Madonna, the focus never shifts away from the pop star. Rebel Heart, in total, is a true Madonna album, despite the unnecessary addition of guest rappers Nicki Minaj, Nas, Chance the Rapper and Mike Tyson (yes, the boxer) who add nothing but jarring clutter to their respective tracks.
Madonna’s melodically rich ballads HeartBreakCity, Joan of Arc, Messiah and the haunting Ghosttown anchor the album and rank among her best.
Better yet, her expressive singing reveals touching vulnerability and the vocal training she underwent for Evita 20 years ago. On Ghosttown, in particular, her rich, warm phrasing in her lower range recalls the much-missed Karen Carpenter. As such, Madonna is one of the finest voices to come out of a 1980s that gave us Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper and Anita Baker. She’s advanced far beyond the thin-voiced singer of her earliest Like a Virgin period.
Rebel Heart, with its dual themes of warrior and wounded, is also among the most personal of Madonna albums. Once again, she grapples with life after love and emerges hopeful on the retro, pop-gospel sounding Living for Love. Other songs tackle the burdens of fame and her now 32-year career (the lovely Wash All Over Me). For sheer musical fun, Addicted is an infectious slice of ’80s pop/rock.
Given its length, there are problems. More explicitly than she’s allowed herself in past recordings like the comparatively tame Erotica, Madonna touches on familiar tropes of sex mingling with religion. S.E.X. is a silly, Fifty Shades-level laundry list of desired bedroom aids. The Kanye-assisted Holy Water, a catchy ode to cunnilingus, is more memorable. But Madonna goes over the top by likening her bodily secretions to the sacred (“Bless yourself and genuflect”) and closes with a groaner of a line claiming that Jesus, or “Yeezus,” loves her, uh, reservoir, best.
If that’s a flaw to this otherwise impressive album, Madonna addresses it on the title track: “I spent some time as a narcissist/Hearing the others say, ‘Look at you, look at you’/Trying to be so provocative/I said, ‘Oh yeah, that was me.’”
“Was?” She still is. Damn her critics and doubters. She needn’t try so hard.
Download: Ghosttown, HeartBreakCity, Addicted, Devil Pray, Messiah.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.