Even between albums, Madonna tends to remain visible with other projects, and rarely leaves the spotlight – so it seems surprising that it’s been almost three years since her last album, “Confessions on a Dance Floor.” She never seems far from the public’s consciousness. As the Robbie Williams song goes, “She’s Madonna.” That says it all.
This decade has been hot and cold for Madonna’s commercial and artistic success. “Music,” released in 2000 was mediocre at best, but it was a massive hit, selling 11 million copies worldwide. The follow-up, the underrated “American Life,” was panned by the majority of critics and was a commercial disappointment. Despite containing what is arguably much stronger material than “Music,” “American Life” limped to a sales total of 4 million copies worldwide – nearly two-thirds less than its predecessor.
She doubled that number – a notable achievement in an age of sinking album sales – with 2005’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” a slick and superbly produced collection of Euro-dance songs that received mostly positive reviews. In addition to spawning several of the catchiest singles of her career and some stellar remixes, “Confessions” yielded an incredibly successful tour followed by a live album. Songs like “Sorry,” “Hung Up,” and “Get Together” were among the catchiest of her career, and the doubters who thought “American Life” was the start of a downward trend were proven wrong.
What next for the ageless wonder that has crowned over popular music and culture for the last quarter-century? Her new album is “Hard Candy,” and it’s a definite change of direction. She’s embraced mainstream titans Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams, and this seems to have been a shrewd business decision given the success of the first single “4 Minutes.” The track is her highest charting in the U.S. in eight years, and is her 37th Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s an astonishing achievement that should quiet all those who complained that she didn’t deserve her recent Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction.
So while her commercial aspirations may be on the upswing, how does the album stack up musically? Alas, apart from a few high points, “Hard Candy” is a substantial disappointment. The production is slick, but falls short of the glistening standards set by albums like Rihanna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad,” or even the new Mariah Carey disc. The bigger problem is the material: it just isn’t here. The songs are mostly rather uninspired and forgettable.
There are some pleasures, but they all are loaded to the front of the disc. Standouts include the funky opening track, “Candy Shop.” It’s a fun song, and practically begs for a series of hot remixes. “4 Minutes” sounds more like a Justin Timberlake song than a Madonna track, but it is undeniably catchy. “Give It 2 Me” is an effective uptempo track reminiscent of something Kylie Minogue might record, and should certainly be considered for release as a single.
After the strength of the first three tracks, the rest of the album mostly limps along. “Heartbeat” is a rather rudimentary track that wouldn’t be out of place on “Music.” “She's Not Me" is vapid, repetitive, juvenile, and overly long. It seems completely out of character for Madonna, and perhaps should have been farmed out to someone like Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan.
“Miles Away” isn’t much better. Musically it’s a cool mix of Vince Clarke-style electronica and the pseudo-Latin feel of songs like “La Isla Bonita,” but lyrically it’s bland. “Dance 2night” is built around a funky bass-line and is hot musically, but unfortunately it is saddled with a forgettable melody that really never takes off. “Incredible” is an oddly chirpy and cloying track that goes on inexorably for 6 lumbering minutes, and ultimately is unlistenable. Even worse is “Spanish Lesson” – it will stand as one of the ghastliest miscalculations of her recording career.
Unlike her best work, Madonna has nothing clever or interesting to say on this album. Perhaps she was stung by the reaction of the more personal material on the comparatively strong “American Life,” and decided to try and match the vapid emptiness that passes for much of the Top 40 these days. Turning 50 doesn’t mean that Madonna should turn into a wizened elder popstress reminiscing fondly about her glory days, but shouldn’t her songs show a little more insight and life-experience than the average pop-tart being mass-produced for 13-year olds at Wal-Mart?
Madonna usually sets trends, but on “Hard Candy” she’s clearly in follower mode. Vocally, she sounds particularly shrill and disconnected with the material. Very little of it seems genuine and believable. It’s Madonna karaoke to a soundtrack provided by ace producers. There’s nothing original or particularly interesting here: others have done it all before, and better – including Madonna herself. The concept of the album is better than the execution. It sadly stacks up as one of the weaker albums of her catalogue, and perhaps the weakest. Hopefully “Hard Candy” will be looked back upon as a prelude to a fantastic late-career era. She can certainly do better than this.