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MDNA Emily Mackay , March 26th, 2012 14:24

Trying to separate Madonna and her music from all the theorising that's followed her around like a cloud of hornets over the years is like trying to get the egg white back out of a massive meringue. She obviously finds it increasingly hard herself and her self-referentiality starts to outweigh her actual innovation. More dangerously, she's moving into a mythical position where she can do no wrong in the eyes of many no matter what she puts out (her worst-received album, Hard Candy, still went gold in both UK and US) and her legend just keeps writing itself regardless.

This album might help with that, in that it should at least stop people trotting out the old 'constant reinvention' line. Continuing Hard Candy's pattern of awful try-hard title and 'show the young uns you've still got it' bangers, it's disappointing in its lack of ambition.

Tabloids and spanners will question if Madonna's determination to bare flesh, flaunt sex and constantly refer to herself as a 'girl' is appropriate in a 53-year-old mother of three. If she's doing anything to stick it to ageist, sexist morons, then hurrah - but that's not the problem here. It's more that with everything she's done, been and seen, is the highest Madonna wants to aim really kicking younger pretenders to the kerb? Minaj and MIA are kept close(r), with two guest spots each, and Rihanna put in her place with the boshin', bangin', Benny Benassi-produced 'Good Girl Gone Bad', oh sorry, my mistake, 'Girl Gone Wild', I GOT CONFUSED A SECOND THERE, whose brainless, charmless pulse is less club, more healthclub. And a Fitness First at that.

Considering the likes of Ri-Ri, Perry et al are merely titting around in a sandbox that Madonna among others marked the edges of, you'd think she could at least let the kiddoes have a go on the swings for a while and carve out some fresh territory. 'Some Girls', a return to the theme of Hard Candy's 'She's Not Me' (essentially: step off, little girl, I invented this shit) is less attitude, more platitude by now. None could deny the pure rush of 'Hung Up', but its point was proved and its template exhausted seven years ago. What would be much more interesting now would be a song where Madonna maintains, yes, her right to act as young and dumb as she feels, but also brings her wit and wisdom to bear, rather than screaming "die bitch! Drive bitch!" like a My Family sitcom writer's idea of gay camp as she does on the as-bad-as-the-title-suggests 'Gang Bang', all minimal thudding, creepy monotonous verses and the sound of cocking guns (yawn) and police sirens (Madonna can still get arrested, you know), somewhere between Rihanna's 'Russian Roulette' and Uffie's 'Pop The Glock'.

'I'm Addicted' is better, bubbly and glinting, and "your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout... when did your name change from language to magic" is more like a good Madonna lyric (even if she does rhyme the latter with tragic). 'Turn Up The Radio' is disposably cute, but by-the-numbers lyrics and chorsues like this are for girls that can't get any better, and Madonna is surely a woman that can do and get whatever she wants. The whole thing just sounds like she's playing it safe. Working with electro-house chap Benassi, best known for monumentally annoying 2003 club hit 'Satisfaction', Martin Solveig, a French pop-house bod best known for Dragonette collaboration and Paper Planes sampling 'Hello', plus old pal William Orbit is certainly pushing no one's boundaries. I mean, at least it's not Diplo, but y'know.

After the first play of this album, I sat down and had a hard think about which of those songs I'd want to play again first. The only one that stuck in the head most was 'Give Me All Your Luvin', whose cheerleader chants and thrumming rhythm are kind of excruciating, but at least catchy. Minaj and MIA are as effortlessly awesome as they can both be when limited to just a few lines. Say what you like about Maya, but she sounds a deal more plausible that Madonna herself on a line like "I'm gon say this once, hey I don't give a shit" but then that's perhaps just the freedom that their different career stages give as evinced by Madge's embarrassingly prostrate apology for the Super Bowl Finger (although more than likely they all had a good laugh about it behind closed doors). Oddly, for a single so tame, Madonna seems to see it as a challenge "Every record sounds the same, you've got to step into my world"? We're already in your bloody world! It was kind of your responsibility to step out of it and make a record that didn't sound the same, so don't bloody badger us about it.

This is perhaps what grates most, the winky-winky see-what-I-did-there way she still assumes she's shocking and challenging us and the constant, self-satisfied nods to her own past, like Nicki Minaj's "you can be my boy toy" to her own "you can be my lucky star" on 'Give Me All Your Luvin'. The album opens with a spoken-word stab at her most fruitful bugbear, religion, ("Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all my sins, for I dread the loss of heaven and the pain of hell, but most of all because I love thee, and I want so badly to be good") picked up again on 'I'm A Sinner''s reworking of 'Ray Of Light'/'Beautiful Stranger', but where 'Like A Prayer' felt like a genuine engagement with her troublesome faith, this just feels like Priests-And-Prostitutes party button pushing,

For someone who's already picked up and referenced the media's obsession with her ability to remake and remodel herself in the name of her 2004 Reinvention World Tour, Madonna's kind of made her bed to lie in; coasting isn't enough. She's already had a very recent victory lap in the form of 2009's Celebration, her third best-of. This, her first album since departing Warners after 25 years, should have been one that was pushing forwards, or even better, sideways. Sadly, it very much MDNain't.