Early one morning the sun was shining and she was lying in bed, wondering why he had her cash and if her hair was still red. An idea for a song bubbled, and she wasn’t sure if this one should be about heartbreak, revenge or the old get-into-the-groove thing. And then – light bulb! – why not multitask it? That was her therapy, after all. Failure? Not an option. Resistance to her will? Futile. The husband who was no longer there? Well, it was nice sometimes to imagine his head popping like a melon. Till death and all that. Now – where did she put her phone?
Yup, MDNA is our lady’s divorce album. Seven out of 16 songs address her split directly, and that’s low-balling if you think the chick with “fake tits and a nasty mood” in “Some Girls” could be the lingerie model who became Guy Ritchie’s new baby mama. Revealing herself has always been part of her art, and this is hardly her first album that’s dark, messy and conflicted. But MDNA stands as Madonna’s most explicit work. Only who would have expected her to be this explicit with her… feelings?
How explicit? “Wake up, ex-wife/This is your life.” “I tried to be your wife/Diminished myself, I swallowed my light.” “Lawyers/Suck it up/Didn’t have a prenup.” “Every man that walks through that door will be compared to you for evermore.” She’s been personal, but never this detailed before. In part, it’s an old punk-rock impulse: Show the world no one can hurt you more than you hurt yourself. Except she has cross-wired exposure and pain, which gives this set of confessions their discomforting immediacy.
As the beats swirl, Madonna pursues release, vows to rise above and wishes things had turned out differently. She also sings about new love (fits like a glove), and asks for someone to lick the frosting off her cake on “B-Day Song.” The music chases the latest articulations of club-land ecstasy, but often returns to the blend of synth-driven electro and Sixties-pop classicism she’s staked out since Like a Prayer. Back after a 12-year layoff is William Orbit, who handles the most pained tracks (including “Gang Bang,” which bitch-slaps Ritchie’s shoot-’em-up aesthetic with a nod to Kill Bill). New in town is Martin Solveig, the French producer behind the cheerleader fantasy of “Give Me All Your Luvin'” who is forced to curb his love of Prince, in service of sounding like William Orbit. Handling the big dance-floor tracks are Italian duo Benny and Alle Benassi, who put the empty boom of the club into songs like “Girl Gone Wild.”
Hooks emerge quickly; there’s lots of naughtiness for the DJ to bring back, and the music has depth that rewards repeated listening. The first impression is a desperation most people will mistake for Madonna’s old impulse for commercial connection. That’s never far away, but this is something far more personal. There’s something remarkable about Madonna’s decision to share her suffering the way she once shared her pleasure. Her music has always been about liberation from oppression, but for the first time the oppression is internal: loss and sadness. Stars – they really are just like us.
Listen to “Girl Gone Wild”: