Madonna ruled the 80’s with an effort that looked effortless. Immaculate Collection, along with New Order’s Substance and Pet Shop Boys’ Discography, came from the New York discoteques and are essential chapters of Pop’s New Testament.

Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th album, has been coming out for so long it’s a shock it’s not out already. A hacker leaked it, but that’s less likely to hold Madonna back than a Giorgio Armani cape, and expectations are that this album can’t be as bad as the previous two, although Rebel Heart has at least 2 stone cold Madonna classics, which doubles the tally of MDNA and Hard Candy combined.

Living for Love cribs the gospel of Like a prayer, but if anyone’s going to plagarise your past (cough Lady – Gaga – cough) it might as well be her. It’s an authoritative vocal, underpinned by an updated 808 acid squelch and Alicia Keys pounding the piano. I doubt she expected to perform its lyrics ‘let me fall down, now I’m going to carry on’ quite so literally.

But how about the rest? It starts so bloody well it’s the EP of her career, although there’s an immediate sticking point. The problem with Devil Pray isn’t the sultry tune, which flirts with Arabic chanting in the same way La Isla Bonita flirted with flamenco, but the lyrics. If you pretend she’s 18 it’s great, but the only time someone her age sniffs glue is while wrapping the grandchildren’s Christmas presents. She wouldn’t be where she was today if she followed half the song’s suggestions: ‘We can get stoned/And we can sniff glue/And we can do E/And we can drop acid.’ Really? Your contemporaries are busy taking cod liver oil Madge, and didn’t we get this ‘down with the kids’ out of the system with the MDNA album? It’s the midlife crisis of a man needing help from salesmen to extricate himself from a 2-seater car.

Without wanting to detract from her own songwriting, she’s only as good as her collaborators, and has recently worked with so many people that it’s almost insulting to those she hasn’t. There are too many lazily dialed in collaborations from people she’s never met. There’s even a song called Illuminati, which perfectly demonstrates why b-sides need to be re-introduced; there are 19 songs here when there could be 12.

An album trying any harder would be a running machine. Bitch, I’m Madonna succeeds only in being worse than its title; only she could get away with it, because no one’s dared tell her it’s shit. It has the charm of a tourettes ringtone, with beats hammering away with the subtlety of a children’s entertainer. Underlining its aimless ambition is the unexpected vulnerability of Joan of Arc. It’s hard to believe she hasn’t already written a song called this. It exposes an unsettling chink in her armour, ‘I can’t be a superhero right now.’ It cues the rest of an album that settles into a vibe not dissimilar to 1992’s underrated Erotica.

Heartbreak City encapsulates the beauty she is capable of, while Ghost Town is exactly the sort of song Madonna should be making: a slinky electro-ballad. It’s magnificent and as the music falls away like melted glacier, her voice almost cracks in the fragile accapella: ‘when it falls down, I’ll be your fire when the lights go out.’ It’s noble, contemporary and utterly affecting; another reason why pop music was invented.

As things progress there are relapses into the clattering of 5 people shouting ideas at the same time, although not all its frenetic moments sound like malfunctioning music software. Iconic rattles away like a marching band, even if she does rhyme it with ironic, while Holy Water is alarmingly set in a strip club, and recycles Vogue’s ‘strike a pose…’ Somehow it works, but it could equally be called Thin Ice. It marks the beginning of a Supermarket Sweep through her back catalogue, with Best Night retreading Justify my love, while Veni Vidi Vici grabs previous song titles, only to be ruined by Nas’ rapping. Most disarming is S.E.X. (another title needing Google to confirm she hadn’t already used it) is porn categories set to minimal beats. It’s the sound of a woman who knows all there is about sex, and might just be genius.

This is not the worst record of her career, but it’s the most frustrating. Her roots are NY disco, not the EDM disco has become. Stuart Price mined this to devastatingly brilliant effect with Confessions on a dance floor, but Rebel Heart is chaotic. It’s often amazing, and occasionally crap. If she deleted half the tracks this would be the comeback record she was hoping for.

This review also appears at: http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/reviews/albums/madonna-rebel-heart

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