Perhaps more so than that of any other pop artist, living or dead, Madonna’s career can be handily split into distinct eras, and further subdivided into periods or phases: her commercial peak in the ’80s, her provocateur years in the early ’90s, her electronic renaissance in the late ’90s and early aughts, and so on. It’s the evolution, or so-called reinventions, that these shifts represent that many wholly credit, erroneously, for the singer’s unprecedented longevity. But when the final history is written on one Madonna Louise Ciccone, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, it’s likely her career will be viewed in just two halves: the pair of decades leading up to and including 2003’s American Life, a 20-year big bang of ubiquitous, propulsive forward momentum that culminated in the deconstruction and rejection of the material world that created the biggest female pop star of all time; and the years that followed, which have found the queen uncertain about how to maintain her throne, often looking back rather than toward the future.
Case in point: Of her 13th studio album’s myriad pleasures are its numerous reminders of Madonnas past, from the ’90s-house throwback of lead single “Living for Love” to samples and lyrical nods to “Vogue,” “Justify My Love,” and Truth or Dare. Madonna’s fans are as varied as her countless visual and sonic diversions have been over the years, and there’s a little something for everyone here, including those pining for a return to the lush, spiritual introspection of Ray of Light (specifically, on the exquisite “Wash All Over Me” and the regal “Messiah”). Madonna has always been ironically self-referential, repeating formulas and quoting past hits, but in recent years those winks and nods have seemed more like tics, the side effect of an artist who’s simply said and done it all, and whose effective banishment from an increasingly ageist radio industry has led her to believe she needs to remind us that, bitch, she’s Madonna.
There are moments throughout Rebel Heart where Madonna carves out new, exhilarating territory for both herself and mainstream pop at large. “Devil Pray,” perhaps her best song in 15 years, reimagines the Animals as a folktronica band with witch-house tendencies, her ruminations on salvation and the existential pitfalls of sniffing glue riding an unexpected low-end groove. Armed with an Arp bass synth, some barking alarms, and copious amounts of Auto-Tune, co-producer Kanye West (who’s also name-checked in the lyrics) gives “Illuminati” the Yeezus treatment, lending Madge’s treatise on the age of enlightenment a portentous industrial edge; her rapped verses about the titular secret society are clean and tight enough to make you forget about “American Life.”
Though less inventive, other songs, too, find Madonna exploring new sounds or revisiting them in novel ways, like the Eastern-flavored “Body Shop,” a reminder of how agile both her vocals and lyrics can be; as extended metaphors for sex organs go, the track is the clever, more sophisticated cousin to 2008’s crass “Candy Shop.” Espousing the power of art in a practical sense as a vehicle for change and a symbol of freedom, “Graffiti Heart” is what Artpop aspired to be. Drawing on Madonna’s connection to pre-fame friends Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in order to authenticate the kind of inspirational anthem that only an artist who emerged from the rubble of Warhol and AIDS could, its personalized missive is far more effective than the more general platitudes of, say, “4 Minutes”: “Whattya got? Show me your Basquiat/He didn’t keep it all to himself/Even with Keith, out on the street he died/Fighting so you can do it as well.”
Rarely have stars as big as Madonna made themselves so accessible to both the media and public, and she’s often spoken of the challenges of sussing out the starfuckers from those worthy of her company. But she’s never addressed the subject as frankly as she does in “HeartBreakCity,” a piano ballad that builds to a inconsolable frenzy of chanted background vocals, martial drums, and, perhaps not coincidentally, a sample of “They Don’t Care About Us” by Michael Jackson, an icon who, unlike Madonna, succumbed to the traps of fame. Her survival is, no doubt, partly credited to the hardened exterior she’s erected over the years, transforming from the soft, vulnerable vixen of Bedtime Stories into the pop-music equivalent of Joan Crawford. Finally, “Inside Out,” which juxtaposes her sensual invitations and supple vocals with an industrial soundscape of ominous, sinuous bass and crackling hip-hop loops, gives us a glimpse of the unabashed romantic hidden beneath the maschinenmensch. She might as well be serenading herself when she begs, “Cynical smile, time to take off your mask.”
It’s these moments that render the album’s fumbles all the more frustrating. Like its predecessor, 2012’s MDNA, Rebel Heart is all over the map, not just musically, but lyrically and vocally. Madonna has always been a versatile artist, but also a surprisingly coherent one, adept at threading seemingly disparate styles together using lyrical themes or sonic continuity, and thus setting an incredibly high standard for both herself and pop music as a whole. She was wise to largely abandon Avicii’s chintzy (yet admittedly infectious) synth hooks in favor of more forward-minded production from the likes of DJ Dahi and Blood Diamonds, but the album would have benefited from more of those up-and-comers and less of established names like the overrated Diplo.
With so many producers with disparate modes at the helm, Rebel Heart feels overworked, the duality of its title muddied by the inclusion of garish party jams like the infuriatingly catchy but lyrically cringe-inducing “Bitch I’m Madonna” and sex songs like “Holy Water,” ostensibly lumped under the “rebel” banner using only the broadest of interpretations. The latter track is a welcome bit of percolating electronica, and she deserves props for effortlessly deploying the word “genuflect” in a pop song, but Madonna’s Catholic baiting feels like a reflex at this point. Despite her well-documented reputation, you could count her sexually provocative songs on one hand up to this point, so the fact that she nearly doubles that number here in one fell swoop suggests she’s either consciously taking the piss out of her Dita Parlo persona or making some kind of comment about women of a certain age unapologetically flexing their libidos. Which would be all well and good if the lyrics rose above Janet-grade (“Oh my God, you’re so hot, pull my hair, let me get on top,” she sings on the lazily titled romp “S.E.X.”).
The sheer number of songs on the album (19, not counting six more on the “super-deluxe” edition) practically guarantees these missteps; an apparent lack of internal editing would suggest a lack of vision. From “Hold Tight” to “Borrowed Time,” however, there’s a timely recurring theme of love triumphing even during the end times. A decade of disco-Madonna makes it easy to forget that she’s a skilled balladeer, and the post-apocalyptic “Ghosttown,” about the last two lovers on Earth, takes a generic, contemporary-pop template (think “Halo”) and stamps it with her singular style a la 1994’s Babyface-penned “Take a Bow.” Rebel Heart is too long, too unnecessarily fussed over, to join the ranks of Like a Prayer, Erotica, and Ray of Light, but tucked inside this lumbering mass of songs are 10 to 12 tracks that would, under any other circumstances, make for Madonna’s best album in at least a decade.
Label: Interscope Release Date: March 10, 2015 Buy: Amazon
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
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
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
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
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
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