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Review: Madonna, MDNA

Madonna pilfers the title of one of her earliest rivals’ songs during the hook of “Girl Gone Wild,” only to defang it of its feminist bent.

3.5

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Madonna, MDNA

In 1993, when asked by a Mexican journalist what she feared most, Madonna admitted plainly, “Dying.” Looking at her body of work, it’s embarrassingly obvious now, and it’s funny to think she’s best known as the queen of sex and not, in fact, the queen of death. Beating the clock, moving fast, accomplishing things because time is scarce and life is short are themes that have permeated almost every aspect of Madonna’s life and career. Her mother, also named Madonna, died at the age of 30, and her namesake spent the next 25 years believing she would meet the same fate. When Madonna became famous at the height of the AIDS crisis, her friends began succumbing to the disease one after the other, which turned the singer into an activist, but also ostensibly became an impetus behind her near-pathological drive to leave her mark on the world.

In the past three years, two of the three biggest pop superstars of the ’80s have died tragically. But unlike Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, Madonna wasn’t thrust into the spotlight by way of an enterprising family or the kind of prodigious talent that, with or without its owner’s consent, begs to be hoisted up and exalted by the masses. That Madonna was forced to compensate for her perceived lack of natural “talent” with, in addition to unbridled creativity, supreme self-control and focus is probably what’s helped keep her from succumbing to the demons that have plagued many of her contemporaries. It’s also, perhaps, the thing that makes her a somewhat unsympathetic character, an attractive target for ridicule among even those who claim to love her.

Everyone is afraid of death. But how that fear manifests itself when you’re one of the most famous women on the planet and how it’s compounded when you reach middle age in an industry that increasingly values youth and beauty were revealed, respectively, in Madonna’s largely graceful quest for answers to life’s most universal questions on Ray of Light and her often awkward, misguided attempts to reconcile those lessons with a habitual desire to preserve her status in the years that have followed. Social, cultural, and political impact aside, Madonna’s career has been a demonstration of endurance.

To that end, while Madonna was accused of running out of ideas long before she actually did, her recent propensity to rehash her own canon seems deliberate—not to mention cynical. Last month, she told The Advocate that while she “never left” her gay audience, she’s “back.” (Back from where is unclear, though her estranged brother’s claim that ex-hubby Guy Ritchie is a homophobe offers a clue.) The video for “Girl Gone Wild,” the second single from her first album in four years, MDNA, is like “Human Nature” redux, seemingly tailor-made to snatch the title of Most Played Video Artist at Gay Bars from Lady Gaga.

But while “Human Nature” was an intentional sendup of Madonna’s Erotica period, the seemingly straight-faced Catholic Girl Gone Bad shtick of “Girl Gone Wild” is just—you guessed it—reductive. Even though Madonna’s dressed up like her, the feisty pop singer who went on Nightline in 1990 and clumsily but zealously called out the media for its hypocrisy and sexism is missing here. Madonna pilfers the title of one of her earliest rivals’ songs during the hook of “Girl Gone Wild,” only to defang it of its feminist bent: Just like Madonna’s own “Material Girl” was meant to be ironic, the point of Cyndi Lauper’s signature anthem is that girls want to have fun, but that’s not all they want to do.

The song’s intro, during which Madonna recites an act of contrition over canned disco strings, is just a ruse; the rest of MDNA is reminiscent of neither Like a Prayer nor Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s unclear what Madonna’s motivations were for reuniting with William Orbit after more than a decade; a smarter move would have been to call on longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard to help her excavate and examine the remains of her second marriage. But while the album is no Ray of Light either, MDNA is surprisingly cohesive despite its seven-plus producers (most notably, Martin Solveig, the man behind the regrettable lead single “Give Me All Your Luvin’”), and it’s obvious Madge and Billy Bubbles can still create magic together. “I’m a Sinner” harks back to the pair’s most ecstatically joyous work—not just sonically, but vocally. Something about recording with Orbit again has inspired Madonna to abandon her recent insistence on singing like she’s wearing a clothespin on her nose.

Likewise, her performance on “Love Spent” is confident enough to transcend Orbit’s superfluous vocal effects. It’s not just the most melodically sophisticated song on the album, it’s also the most revealing, rather poignantly alluding to the tens of millions Ritchie received in the couple’s divorce settlement: “I want you to take me like you took your money,” she longs. What makes the lyrical faux pas of songs like “Girl Gone Wild” and “Superstar” so frustrating is the pop mastery of tracks like this and the Italo-disco “I’m Addicted,” a meditation on the power of language that’s both profound (“All of the letters push to the front of my mouth/And saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I’m a dick-, I’m a dick-, I’m addicted to your love”). When she’s not rapping about child custody and prenups on “I Don’t Give A,” she admits: “I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminished myself/And I swallowed my light.”

But in case the title of that song didn’t tip you off, the Madonna of MDNA is more defiant than heartbroken. Ritchie’s impact on the singer’s personal life is obvious, but his influence on her work is just as apparent: He bought her a guitar when they met, changing her approach to songwriting, and he was responsible for the introduction of violence, often seemingly gratuitous, into her videos and stage performances, starting with his clip for her 2001 single “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” So, in that sense, it’s disappointing to see guns and violence continue to play such a prominent role here. But the twisted “Gang Bang,” a standout cut in which Madonna quite convincingly portrays a jilted bride turned femme fatale in the vein of Beatrix Kiddo, plays more like a piss take of Ritchie’s gangster fetish than a glorification of it.

Madonna’s Super Bowl performance last month—spectacular but lacking spontaneity—was indicative of her overall approach to her career these days: meticulously orchestrated down to every dance move, every mimed syllable. The non-controversy of M.I.A. flipping the bird was notable only because it served as a reminder of just how “safe” the rest of the performance was. But songs like “Gang Bang” serve as reminders that what separates Madonna from most other mainstream pop stars is her willingness to try new things. Fear—of failure, of looking uncool, of death—can either paralyze or propel you. MDNA finds Madonna continuing to defy the laws of nature by doing both.

Label: Interscope Release Date: March 26, 2012 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated

Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

3.5

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Guster, Look Alive

Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.

Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.

On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.

Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.

For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results

Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.

3.0

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.

Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.

Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.

Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.

The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.

Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip

On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.

3.0

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Joe Jackson, Fool

Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.

The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.

Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.

Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.

If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.

Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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