April 29, 2008
Review: Madonna's Hard Candy
"They say that a good thing never lasts..."
With Hard Candy Madonna commits a sin: she repeats herself. She dresses it up in urban cougar subterfuge, but this reviewer is onto to her wanton ways. You see, The Lady Ritchie already did the iwannahavesomefun thing on Confessions, so Hard Candy is a rehash of that, shifting the dancehall from Brighton to, say... Atlanta.
The Lady Ritchie's success has never been just about dancing. If that were the case, she'd be J-Lo with better taste. Madonna is about melodic songs with IDEAS and EMOTION: dance songs that lift you higher than any others, romantic songs that sweep you down and up. Dramatically.
Count me as a fan of first single 4 Minutes, which I think is a perfect amalgamation of Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and Miss Ciccone. While I could do without the obvious "Madonnuh!" chants, I love the "grab a boy, grab a girl" chorus. It's a vintage pop track, though the sleeker Junkie XL edit makes me wonder what it might have been in the hands of COAD producer Stuart Price.
Current blog wisdom is that the Pharrell Williams tracks are Candy's best. Certainly Give It To Me will rank as a solid single (and probably a live blowout as well), but Williams' production often sound cheap, canned. He takes chances on Incredible and She's Not Me, both around six minutes long. The first time I heard the pulsing middle eight of Incredible ("hands up" at 2:53), I thought "Wow!" and then wished the whole song had been built on that urgency. To me, it sounds tinny and tacky. I cringe every time I hear Madonna talk-sing the grammatically painful lyric, "Just one of those things, when everything goes incredible."
Don't get me started on how Pharrell, not Timbaland (as expected), inserts his non-singer voice into most of his tracks. He even has Madonna belching "See my booty get down" on Heartbeat (at 2:20). She wouldn't have deigned to say those words at 23, so why it makes sense at 49 is beyond me?
All is not lost. Madonna adds several classics to her cannon. Miles Away is superb: a melancholy spin on the her usual relationship songs. It has the emotional elements of the best Madonna songs, with an earworm of a chorus: the repetition of the pretty "so far away, so far away." The final minute is the best moment on the album, when Madonna has metaphorically left the stage, but the dance goes on without her as the lights dim. Ahhhh.
Dance 2night, another collaboration with Justin, smartly mixes up eras in its arrangement, with some grimy funk, some Off The Wall disco and bubbling synths/strings on the gorge pre-chorus (eg: 1:01 - 1:38). The watery Devil Wouldn't Recognize You harkens back to great Madonna midtempos like 1994's Love Tried To Welcome Me. Unlikely as a single, this is the kind of album track that sticks with you for years because it's never overplayed.
The album also has some great "bits", like Pharrell's Prince-ian "Wendy!" to the Wendy Melvoin as she does that Kiss-like strum at 4:00 on She's Not Me, Justin's choral vocals breaking down Devil at 3:16, the track stuttering on Miles Away (at 3:15) or the big, multi-tracked "nows" and "hows" that seem to become more expansive throughout Give It To Me.
I don't fault Esther for trying something new - or even insane, like the truly embarrassing Candy Shop - but I do fault her for releasing a bland shit track like Spanish Lessons or allowing one-trick-pony Kanye West to use her album as a smug bully pulpit. I fault her for recording an album while writing and directing a film, "designing" clothes, producing a documentary, saving Malawians and raising three children, including a baby. All of this in one year. Her inability to sit still has diluted her work.
As a longtime Madonna fan, I would have preferred she steered a new course. Madonna's great flaw is that she's not a magician: you can often see the gears working. She is at her best when she cuts the shit and reveals pure vulnerability [refer to Secret or Frozen] or joy [refer to Ray Of Light or the Drowned World Tour version of La Isla Bonita] into her work.
At her worst, she tries too hard. In this case, she tried too hard by hiring the hitmakers of the day (which makes them instantly passe in Madonna's usual rulebook) and yet she didn't try hard enough, by seemingly abdicating her role as quality-focused producer. My suspicion is that she knows it will be harder to present dance-based songs like these on tour, where her millions will be made, at 55 than 50, so why not do it now?
Hard Candy is not a failure, but I'll be damned if I am going to end this review with another cliche about sugar.
Much of this review was formulated during emails with various bloggers. Thanks, Madge-obsessed freaks. See you at the show!