The year’s most peculiar release strategy rolls on. Today Madonna trickled out three more tracks from her forthcoming album, Rebel Heart, bringing the (official) count up to nine. While that’s the median length of Madge’s first three albums, it’s the equivalent of a sampler for this one. Rebel Heart is out on March 10th in three distinct versions: 14 tracks on the standard, 19 on the deluxe, and a whopping 25 (that’s almost 100 minutes) in the “super deluxe” package. That’s good news for those who’ve taken issue with what they’ve heard thus far—who found, say, “Bitch I’m Madonna” to be the unflattering tantrum its title implied, or felt that the album version of “Illuminati” squandered the fleet silliness of the leaked demo in favor of Kanye West’s leaden rework. There’s plenty left in the tank to accommodate imaginative restructuring of Madonna’s latest opus, and some of the best is yet to come.
In the mean time, as promised, the Queen of Pop follows up a fairly stellar performance of Rebel Heart lead single “Living for Love” on the Grammys last night with another partial-release following the sequential pattern of the last one, offering up Rebel Heart tracks seven through nine. The best of these is arguably the standout of the whole over-blown affair: “Joan of Arc” sounded like a highlight even in its more acoustic demo form, but the album version is a full-on stunner, compensating for a loss of some of the leaked incarnation’s ethereal haze with a new beat that lifts the BPMs considerably, but preserving the gorgeous, string-laden bridge and acoustic denouement. With its hushed, vibrato-tinged vocal and confessional lyrics, the song sounds a bit like a Cardigans leftover circa Long Gone Before Daylight. It’s the strongest (anti-)ballad of Madonna’s last few albums, and a strong argument for artists responding to the denigration of their art through the more considered medium of the art itself, rather than snap public statements (just posting this song would’ve been a more powerful response to the leak of her demos last year than calling the act “terrorism” and “artistic rape” on social media).
More than any of the previously released songs, “Joan of Arc” also establishes one of the foundational themes of Rebel Heart, albeit one not always evident when wading through the poorly sequenced album. Loosely, that theme is introspection, though not so much of the self-critique variety as obsessive self-regard. Rebel Heart, ironically enough, mirrors its bumpy launch, with genuine statements of personal and careerist reflection scattered among the posturing of “Bitch I’m Madonna” and “Unapologetic Bitch.” Another of today’s newly released tracks crosses these wires. “I worked hard and sweated my tears,” Mike Tyson goofily barks through a wall of chintzy applause during the intro to “Iconic,” a song that otherwise boasts Rebel Heart’s toughest, weirdest beat (think Kanye and Jay-Z’s “H-A-M” arm-wrestling Skrillex), not to mention a show-stopping Chance the Rapper verse and a pretty disarming message from the singer herself: “There’s another part of me no one sees.” It’s unclear if Madonna means to embrace her iconic status or fight her way out from under its oppressive expectations, especially since the song sounds like such a waking nightmare. It’s that kind of discontent, uncommon for a pop star pushing 60, that makes Rebel Heart occasionally sound like Madonna’s most committed work since 2003’s underrated American Life.
Plenty often, though, the new material sounds as plainly work-for-hire as the worst of her last decade of uneven albums. “Hold Tight” is perfectly acceptable album filler: innocuous, lyrically platitudinous pop that briefly works itself up into something exciting when it threatens to become a gospelized stomp. It wouldn’t be particularly lamentable were it not for the fact that there are so many better choices for the standard edition of the album that have been relegated to bonus tracks (like the title track itself!). And that might be one of the most damning results of the Rebel Heart leak cycle: It’s shown us the extent of what Madonna’s capable of at her best to the point that it’s unclear why she (or we) should settle for the second best.