Album Review: Madonna finds beauty in the beat on ‘MDNA’

For all her success, there”s always seemed to be something remote about Madonna, as if she”s behind glass. So it comes as a bit of a shock at first that tucked within “MDNA”s” often sterile beats, she shows the most emotion that we”ve heard from her. Talk about confessions on a dancefloor…

Madonna”s 12th studio album, out March 26,  touches on two of her favorite go-tos: religion and dance, but she”s added scorned spouse to the mix.  “MDNA” is triptych into her psyche and there”s a lot going on in that platinum head of hers, most of it set to throbbing beats per minute.

Above all, “MDNA” is a dance album and Madonna enlisted a platoon of producers, including William Orbit, Martin Solveig, and Benny Benassi, to keep the the thumping at a maximum.

The album opens with current single, “Girl Gone Wild.” Madonna has a confession to make: as badly as she wants to be good, she just can”t help herself.

And there”s plenty here to confess to, including murder. On “Gang Bang,”  “MDNA”s” most compelling tracks, Madonna sings in a low whispery register, detailing that she”s shot her lover dead in the head and, furthermore, she has no regrets. We hear the shells hitting the floor and the echoes of a police radio juxtaposed against a hypnotic, lulling beat. It”s violent and explicit and it”s what Madonna used to represent: a sense of danger.

In the song, she goes after ex-husband Guy Ritchie (presumably), but she”s not done with him yet. On “I Don”t Give A” featuring Nicki Minaj, Madonna sings in a robotic, autotuned voice, lamenting that she “tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/diminished myself/swallowed my liight” and “in the end it was a failure.”  Despite her swearing she”ll be “OK,” as she repeats “I”m a fool” over and over at the end, the music swelling in dramatic, operatic fashion, it”s clear she may have moved on, but she”s far from healed.

Her anger switches to sadness on “Best Friend,” a skipping, electro-dance track where she realizes “It was inevitable it would end” and that “every man who walks through that door” will be compared to her ex.

There”s real vitriol in tracks like “Gang Bang” and “I Don”t Give A,” but Madonna effortlessly segues into two of the most uncynical songs she”s ever recorded: “Turn Up The Radio” is a sweet, Bangles-like, slab of ear pop candy that recalls her earliest singles, “Holiday” and “Borderline.”  That same sweetness pervades clapfest, “Superstar,” on which she unabashedly compares her beloved to Abraham Lincoln, James Dean and John Travolta, backed by an infectious “oh la la” chorus. “I”m Addicted,” with its bouncing synth line, is, at its heart, a fun ’70s pop tune.

She abandons the dance stance for “Masterpiece,” from “W.E.,” and for “Falling Free,” a string-laden, mid-tempo ballad that features Madonna singing beautifully, if mannered, throughout on the tender track about letting go.

There”s an adventurousness to Madonna here, which makes the need for guest stars like Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. and LMFAO, featured on the two versions of “Give Me All Your Luvin” on the deluxe set,  all the more confusing. She doesn”t need them to give her any extra cachet. She”s Madonna.

Not all the songs work(especially on the 19-song deluxe version). “B-Day Song” featuring M.I.A. is a completely disposable track, if a catchy one. “I”m A Sinner” opens with a promising Phil Spector/girl group production before  yielding to horns and a gentle bounce that don”t follow through on the strong start. “Beautiful Killer” boasts some of her worst lyrics: “Like a samurai you can handle the heat” or “can”t really talk with the gun in my mouth/maybe that”s what you”ve been dreaming about.”  SImilarly, “I Fucked Up,” where, against a slight, militant beat, she takes the blame for destroying “the perfect dream,” but the lyrics take a weird, awkward turn when she lists everything they could have done, but now never will.

“MDNA” is far from a perfect album and it’s not likely to make any fan forget her classic hits, but it far surpasses Madonna”s last studio album, 2008″s “Hard Candy.” With her career passing the 30-year mark, “MDNA” is an effort by a truly iconic artist who seems, in many ways, to be letting us see her for the first time.

Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda