As soon as talks of Madonna working with electronic masterminds Benny Benassi and William Orbit were announced in regards to a then untitled new record by Ms. Ciccone, the world began buzzing. Was it a return to the introspective approach to pop music that 1998’s critically acclaimed Ray of Light brought to us? Was it a continuation and new revelation of sonics experimented with through the Benassi remix of “Celebration” off the Greatest Hits compilation of the same name? The amount of noise surrounding the album, which became titled MDNA and was released stateside on March 23rd, 2012 was astonishing and nothing had even been announced.
Soon after, a demo version of “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” a song produced by Martin Sloveig hit the internet and a 31 year old from Spain was arrested on copyright violations. A sour taste was left in our mouths because of the legal aspects surrounding the way the songs leak played out, but all in all the track seemed like a 21st century surfing-anthem of sorts. Full of optimism, excitement, and poise, “Give Me All Your Luvin'” echoed the fans sentimentss and a flawless Superbowl performance alongside M.I.A., Nicki Minaj, LMFAO, and Cee-Lo Green gave the hype machine even more fuel to fire. With the album shooting up to the number one spot in 40 different countries on iTunes charts just in pre-sales, MDNA was shaping up to be one of the most arousing, anticipated mainstream records of the first quarter of the year.
As electrifying as the minimalistic promotional campaign was for MDNA was, it obviously worked like a charm. Madonna’s record sold a modest 56,000 records in the United Kingdom but managed to break Elvis Presley’s UK charts record by becoming the first artist to have twelve number one albums. Her debut single off the record also became her 38th song to go top 10 in on the United States’ Billboard Hot 100 charts, and the record is pulling in steady numbers stateside, currently battling Lionel Richie’s latest release for the top spot on Billboard 200 Albums Chart.
MDNA itself seems to be her most mainstream dance record to date, this time gearing more toward the four-to-the-floor EDM/pop feel than that of the Trance and Folktronic routes she took on past records Confessions on a Dancefloor and the underrated American Life. It seems to be a step in the popular direction and a bit more in the vein of her roots than 2008’s urban-pop dud Hard Candy, but for the most part it plays out well over it’s deluxe edition’s hourlong timeframe, whereas the previous release suffered relevancy issues and cohesion complications.
An obvious upstanding piece is the previously mentioned first single from the record, “Give Me All Your Luvin'” which features collaboration it-girl Nicki Minaj and controversial Sri-Lankan rapper M.I.A. The two have similar badass approaches to music and have proved to have chemistry before (see Maya & Nicki’s fantastic “Teqkilla” Remix). They continue to demonstrate verbal creativity on the flower-power 60’s inspired Madonna track. It’s song structure subtly changes through the song while continuing it’s drive. Morphing from a cheerleading introduction, to surf-boy pop, stereo-paired acoustic guitar chorus, and a dubstep-esque breakdown, it genre bends effortlessly and introduces it’s featured guest spots without breaking up the overall dominion of the song.
In the same vein of positive music, “Superstar” and “B-Day Song” (which features Miss Arulpragasam yet again) continue their campy, carefree and bright percussive samples, guitar melodies. They add a great amount of instrumental feeling to MDNA and include some interesting vocal productions, introducing delay effects on the deluxe edition track and layers of adorable background vocals on the “Superstar” track. It even features Madge’s daughter Lourdes on background toward the end of the song.
Unfortunately, these are the only three tracks that fit outside of the densely electronic atmosphere and they seem to fall a bit short. There’s absolutely nothing lyrically wrong or inconsistent in gauging song structure superiority, but the mixing on the album aims to create an extreme emphasis on dance music. Because of this, the tracks that aren’t typically songs you would hear in an New York City club suffer sonic loss. Nothing quite indicates this point more clearly than the ironically titled “Masterpiece.”
“Masterpiece,” written for Madonna’s directorial W.E. unleashes a terrible mixing technique upon itself. The kick drum is quite literally the loudest instrument in the entire mix and is so loud that on inexpensive speaker systems, it could come across quite distorted or overpowering. Even on consumer headphones that fail to accurately translate low-end frequencies, the punch of the kick sample is so massively strong that it manages to obliterate any feeling that the rest of the instruments have to offer.
Beautiful reverberation surrounds one of Madonna’s finest lyrical ventures in her 21st century catalog and vocoders also help to supply the electronic consistency that MDNA offers while it’s string samples lie down the supporting pad-instrument to give an emotional outpour of mourning. “And I’m right by your side, like a thief in the night I stand in front of a masterpiece. And I can’t tell you why it hurts so much, To be in love with the masterpiece. ‘Cause after all nothing’s indestructible” summarizes the entirety of the track in precision that could only come from the words in which this pop queen has always shown on her records. William Orbit temporarily brought back fragments of Ray of Light and even the throwback-futuristic sounds of 2000’s Music to incorporate themes onto this production wonderfully. However, the way the record is mixed is entirely unbalanced for it to show anything more than brokendown beauty.
“Masterpiece” is the unfortunate misfire of what could have been bliss for MDNA and sits at an average rating of 6dB difference in Dynamic Range according to the TT Loudness Meter. In fact, the entire record sits at this 6DB dynamic range setting except for two tracks on the standard edition of the album.
Apparently, Madonna had vast say in the final producing, mixing, and mastering sections of the record. She’s done this for a bit and it’s an extremely admirable aspect that she’s so involved if the recording process, but could possibly conclude why the record sounds as it does. (Sources: William Orbit Twitter and liner notes).
“Falling Free” is the most dynamic on the record and even the most listenable. It clocks in at an acceptable rating of 9dB and while it’s still a heavily compressed composition, it’s fairly obvious that extreme care was considered in the album’s final comedown and closing piece. While it could easily have been produced with yet another four-to-the-floor dance beat, it remains rhythmically silent, allowing synthesized melodies, and vocoder inklings to take hold and allow full sonic honesty and lyrical sensibility. Electronic beeps bring in brief moments of sentiment and a small, lethargic bass occasionally carries in low-end warmth, which allows the song to tell an overall comprehensive story along with the vocals.
One thing MDNA gets respect for is that it doesn’t stay true to the method of mixing pop records so that the high frequencies shine so bright that they’re nauseatingly predictable. Madonna’s vocals sometimes aren’t even the main focus of a mix. They’re bumped up a bit in the equalization frequency spectrum and heavily compressed for effects, sure, but a lot of mid-range and low end is also present throughout the record in consideration of vocal tracks. This is a great thing, as Ciccone has a great low end register from time to time. To have her vulnerable voice captured with tender care is something that the records since Something To Remember has aimed to capture, accurately succeeding.
What’s wrong though, with the rest of the dance tracks is that they’re compressed so heavily that the shining production comes across as dull and empty. The synthesizer envelopes never really reach any sort of dynamic peak and while their melodies are astounding through the album, they fall flat without any sort of attack or interesting sustain. “I’m Addicted” is a sure sign of this, as the plucked-sounding synth that is present through the better part of the track doesn’t seem to have much attack to it. As a matter of fact, it stays pretty much at the same volume with each note played and has a blunt kick drum accompaniment that doesn’t help the song’s case. Otherwise, the song could be right up there with “Impressive Distant” (Music, 2000) in the same vein of the Trance/Pop vibe.
There are instances where the cringe-worthy mixing of MDNA can be overlooked. Madonna comes across sounding a bit Shirley Manson from Garbage on “Most Girls” and the grunge-esque/electro synth bass, as well as synth-horn calls contain an abundant amount of power that is extremely difficult to ignore. Combine this with electronic vocal stutters, manipulations, loops, repeats, and you have one hell of a track that shows as a true star through MDNA’s play.
“Turn Up The Radio” also has a short sound effect in the background that goes hard on reverb effect and makes it’s way into the song a few times. It’s a clever interpolation of creativity that gives the song a bit more life and displays surface level exploration that’s gladly acceptable on the spring released album.
On a deeper level of experimentation, there’s a banjo present on “Love Spent,” that plays in and out of the mix while Madonna’s treated vocals boldly declare “You had all of me, you wanted more. Would you have married me if I were poor? I guess if I was your treasury you’d have found the time to treasure me.” (We also recommend the Acoustic version that was given away with the pre-order of the album on iTunes). As Jimmy Fallon mentioned during his live Facebook sit down with the pop artist, “Love Spent” plays out like three dance songs rolled into one pristine, three minute epic. Piano, guitar, banjos, and a constantly changing dance atmosphere creates a substantial amount of melodramatic principles and once the halfway point breakdown reaches its way into the listener’s ear, its clear that this is a well thought out production, spanning through various soundscapes to combine a conglomeration of sounds all coming together to enforce the main motive of the track and subject the listener to a very distinct understanding of the declarations Madonna is making.
“I want you to take me like you took your money. Take me in your arms until your last breath. I want you to hold me like you hold your money. Hold on to me ’till there’s nothing left.”
Judging from those lines, there’s an elephant in the room. A big elephant. It’s impossible to overlook the fact that Madonna’s 2008 split from director Guy Ritchie obviously plays an important role on a lot of the themes and subjects covered on this release. The bonus track “I Fucked Up” also makes this point loud and clear, as does the most experimental track on the record “Best Friend”.
“Best Friend” contains an interesting and greatly programmed rolling-sort of synth that flows through the bulk of the song, only dropping out during the choruses to allow the track to brighten up to morph and have a bit of space amongst the suffocating and demanding atmosphere that it brings upon itself. Madonna’s voice is treated using a pitch corrector that sounds like something of the pitch correction tool in Logic Pro as opposed to Autotune (if anyone knows the plugin used for this track, let us know!). It has a sort of tuned down setting making it a nice alternative touch to the robotic feel of today’s pop music in regards to pitch correction. Overall it all makes for a great sounding electronic track because of it’s smart programming.
Though the album has it’s dark moments in both lyrical motives and mixing/mastering misfires, it’s a thorough album that explores what it’s like to be a veteran pop artist in the 21st century and trying to maintain a balance of relevancy and artistic integrity. Mostly, MDNA is the poor man’s Music in that it’s an attempt at infusing different genres into an overall dance album, but fails to do so as elegantly and effortlessly as the 2000 released from the same artist. However, it still shows diversity. “Girl Gone Wild” shows the disposable, but respectable and highly infectious top notch/Top 40 attempt, while “Gang Bang” plays against a minimalist electronic beat while experimentally venturing off into Dubstep territory without coming across as desperate to remain homogenized with the current state of mainstream music.
MDNA is a million worlds wrapped up in one album and although it’s by far not her best, it still contains replay value and is an honorary attempt at creating an album that’s as heterogeneous and daring as anything in Madonna’s catalog.
Album rating: 3/5