Madonna

MDNA

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Most pop stars reach a point where they accept the slow march of time, but not Madonna. Time is Madonna's enemy -- an enemy to be battled or, better still, one to be ignored. She soldiers on, turning tougher, harder, colder with each passing album, winding up with a record as flinty as MDNA, the 2012 record that is her first release since departing Warner for Interscope. That's hardly the only notable shift in Madonna's life since the 2008 release of Hard Candy. Since then, she has divorced film director Guy Ritchie and has seen her '80s persona co-opted and perverted by Lady Gaga, events so cataclysmic she can't help but address them on MDNA. Madonna hits the divorce dead-on, muttering about "pre-nups" when she's not fiercely boasting of shooting her lover in the head, and she's not exactly shy about reasserting her dominion over dance and pop, going so far as to draft Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. as maid servants paying their respect to the queen. Whatever part of MDNA that isn't devoted to divorce is dedicated to proving that Madonna remains the preeminent pop star, working harder than anybody to stay just on the edge of the vanguard. All this exertion leads to an excessively lean album: there's not an ounce of fat on MDNA, it's all overly defined muscle, every element working with designated purpose. Such steely precision means there's no warmth on MDNA, not even when Madonna directly confesses emotions she's previously avoided, but the cool calculations here are preferable to the electronic mess of Hard Candy, not least because there's a focus that flows all the way down to the pop hooks, which are as strong and hard as those on Confessions on a Dance Floor even if they're not quite so prominent as they were on that 2005 retro-masterwork. MDNA does echo the Euro-disco vibe of Confessions -- "Love Spent" consciously reworks the ABBA-sampling "Hung Up" -- yet as a whole it feels chillier, possibly due to that defensive undercurrent that pervades the album. Even if she's only measuring it in terms of pretenders to her throne, Madonna is aware of time passing yet she's compelled to fight it, to stay on top, to not slow down, to not waste a second of life, to keep working because the meaning of life is work, not pleasure. Naturally, all that labor can pay off, whether it's through the malevolent pulse of "Gang Bang" or the clever "Beautiful Stranger" rewrite "I'm a Sinner," but, ironically for all of Madonna's exhausting exertion elsewhere, these are the songs that benefit from her finely honed skills as a pop craftsman, illustrating that no matter how she combats it, she can't escape her age and may indeed be better off just embracing it.

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