Review Summary: Schizophrenic fun.
For pop fans, Madonna's album releases always carry a sense of occasion far more weighty than those of most other artists. Her music has always been downright smart, so generally more is expected from her albums. They're not always good (Hard Candy was a stinker), crowd-pandering (Erotica was an alienating AIDs-era masterpiece), or accessible (American Life was... odd), but they always at least have the smarts and courage to back up whatever faults they've had. Almost. This release has seen much more disheartening controversies than previous releases, however. The initial leak of tracks back in December followed up by THAT comment was not good for publicity, nor was THAT attempt at a creating a meme. Her fall at the BRITs brought to light a lot of backlash towards her (as well as some shocking ageism), and all hope looked bleak for Rebel Heart's success. Not that is needs to be successful, as such, her legacy is sealed and it's the content that matters.
Luckily, the content is some of Madge's best, and easily her best since 2000's Music. Not that you'd ever know that this album and Music were ever from the same artist; Rebel Heart finds Madonna in a kind of weirdly-schizo mood, swinging violently from some pretty actually-heart-rending ballades to ravey, garish dance music. It's probably her least cohesive album ever but she makes it work quite well. The sequencing and overall quality of the tracks make it feel like a Greatest-Hits we've never heard before, which is probably the highest compliment I can give it. On the subject of the tracks, there's none that really stand out as being outright bad as such, and just a couple merely not the standard expected from Madonna. "Iconic" is a weird beast, too melodic to work as dance and too dance-y too work as pop. "Devil Prey" is also pretty underwhelming, sounding like "Don't Tell Me" robbed of all it's charm. Outside of these two and a few others it's hugely enjoyable: lead track "Living for Love" is one of her best singles in years and "Bitch I'm Madonna" is a fantastically bratty and trippy dance track, sounding a bit like a poppier version Sophie's 2013 track "Bipp". "Ghosttown" is one of the best choruses she's ever come up with and if it doesn't get some decent radio-airplay, there's no justice in the world.
The latter track is probably the best example of why this album works as well as it does; as on 2005's "Confessions on a Dancefloor", Madonna has a great knack for tying personal and confessional lyrics to great pop structures. "Each time they write a hateful word", she sings on Joan of Arc, "I wanna die/Never admit it but it hurts". It's an obvious reference to her life in the media and it's great to hear her sing so candidly about topics other than her usual go-to topics of sex or religion, both of which feature here in reduced capacity on "Holy Water". These moments of open-heartedness draw attention to the album's lack of ambition at times, which is really the only big problem here. Taken as a whole it's the most outright-fun album she's had in years, but when you focus on each of the tracks separately it derails a small bit. When she's singing lyrics like "Yeah, we'll be drinking and nobody's gonna stop us And we'll be kissing anybody that's around us" it really feels like she's trying to posture to impress the masses. She's a pop-star, that's her job, but she's managed to do it before while still retaining her artistic credibilty. Hell, even on MDNA she managed to consistently tie fantastic lyrics to modern dance. It's a pity, but given the vastness of the album it's not a massive flaw, more just a missed oppurtunity.
So while it's not Like a Prayer or Confessions on a Dancefloor, it's at least Like A Virgin or Music. At 56 Madonna seems content to mostly just have fun, and that's great too. It's made for one of her strongest albums in a long while and something I'll be listening to for months. I just hope that this is her Bedtime Stories after Erotica, and the next album is a Ray of Light.
(This review was originally listed as 4.0, and I had great difficulty trying to rate it. I have dropped it down to 3.0 - reviewing it as an album as a whole, it's good, but song by song, it falls apart. If you plan on listening to it as a solid, honest-to-god pop album, feel free to add 1).