All through her career, it has been impossible to divorce Madonna's music from her image, as they feed off each other to the point where it's hard to tell which came first, the concept or the songs. Glancing at the aggressively ugly cover to Hard Candy -- its blistering pinks and assaultive leather suggesting cheap bottom-barrel porno -- it's hard not to wish that this is the one time Madge broke from tradition, offering music that wasn't quite as garish as her graphics. That is not the case. Hard Candy is all brutal hard edges and blaring primary colors, a relentlessly mercenary collection of cold beats and chilly innuendo. Sex has always been a driving force for Madonna, but she's never been as ruthlessly pornographic as she is here, not even when she cut Erotica as a companion to her softcore coffee-table book Sex back in 1992. For all of its carnality, Erotica was coy, belonging to the classic burlesque teasing tradition, but Hard Candy is utterly modern, a steely sex album for the age of Cialis. This new millennium is also an era when Top 40 has pretty much ceased to exist and a pop artist as sharp as Madonna knows this, so she has abandoned the idea of a big crossover hit -- the kind that Erotica courted with such gorgeous, shimmering adult contemporary ballads as "Rain" and "Bad Girl" -- and pitches Hard Candy directly toward her core audience of club-conscious, fashion-forward trendsetters.
This is a smart play, as this is the audience that has always consisted of Madonna loyalists, and it's also is a savvy way to negotiate the explosion of niches in 2008, but there are problems in her execution. Madonna relies on the Neptunes and the pair of Timbaland and Justin Timberlake for most of her modern makeover -- a good idea in theory as they are some of the biggest hitmakers of the decade, but the productions they've constructed here sound a couple years old at best and at worst feel like they're dressing Madonna in Nelly Furtado's promiscuous hand-me-downs. Sometimes this can result in reasonably appealing grooves -- "Candy Shop" captures Pharrell Williams' flair for slim, sleek grooves, "Dance 2night" conjures Timberlake's Off the Wall obsession nicely, and the icy heartbreak of "Miles Away" is a worthy successor to "What Goes Around Comes Around" -- but this also points out the album's main flaw: the track comes before the song. Madonna's greatness has always hinged on how she channeled dance trends into pop songs, placing equal emphasis on sound and melody, which provided a neat way to sneak underground club trends into the mainstream. Here, she cedes melodic hooks to rhythmic hooks -- witness the clanging, cluttered "4 Minutes," where she's drowned out by Timbaland's farting four-note synth -- which might not have been so bad if the tracks were fresher and if the whole enterprise didn't feel quite so joylessly mechanical. Madonna doesn't even sound desperate to sit atop current trends; rather, she's following them because she's expected to do so. There's a palpable sense of disinterest here, as if she just handed the reins over to Pharrell and Timba-Lake, trusting them to polish up this piece of stale candy. Maybe she's not into the music; maybe she's just running out this last album for Warner before she moves onto the greener pastures of Live Nation -- either way, Hard Candy is a rare thing: a lifeless Madonna album.