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Madonna’s ‘MDNA’ Has Critics Pondering: Is It a Dance or Divorce Album?

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"MDNA"

Does MDNA have the RGHT STFF? The critics have weighed in on Madonna's new album, and the consensus view is that this is Her Madge-esty's most enjoyable effort since 2000's Music -- or even "her best album since Ray of Light in 1998," as one notoriously tough critic, the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot, happily declared.

Which is not to say that Madonna, unlike music itself, is necessarily one to make the people come together. There is also plenty of snark to go around in the reviews, and while some critics question whether her full immersion in youthful dance music is appropriate for a superstar of 53, others take her to task for not being nearly as edgy or provocative as she used to be. In other words, she is either acting too immature or too mature, depending on which bone you prefer to pick.

Disagreement also hinges on whether MDNA is an autobiographically revealing work that could be described as "our lady's divorce album," as Rolling Stone's Joe Levy did, or whether it's really more of a delightful disco romp. Three or four of the songs do seem to deal with the breakup of her marriage to filmmaker Guy Ritchie, but the majority are care-free dance-floor fodder, so you might be confused as you read the reviews about whether the album is a confessional or pure ear candy.

The New York Times may have gotten at that duality best. "It's a bipolar collection that pumps out effervescent electronic pop before making way for a contentious personal agenda," writes Jon Pareles."MDNA places most of the dance-club songs up front... The tone darkens after the dance tunes... Her survival instinct is her pop instinct, the one that hones catchiness above all, and it gets her through MDNA with hook after hook."

Under a headline that calls the album "exhilarating" and "great," the New York Daily News' longtime lead critic, Jim Farber, effusively emphasized the booty-shaking aspects. "Upbeat tracks dominate MDNA," Farber writes. "So many good tracks crowd the disc, in fact, that even the four extras on the deluxe version rate as must-owns... The dance songs that dominate aren't pushing mainstream club music ahead, as Madonna did on albums like Erotica or Ray of Light. But they're in step with the most pleasurable tics and beats of now." Farber notes that "much of MDNA has more the flip zip of a disc by Katy Perry or Ke$ha than something by a woman who may be older than both their mothers." And for this critic, that's a good thing: "The music itself is what makes her flagrant act of regression not embarrassing but both pointed and exciting... It finds Madonna aging in the most nose-thumbing way possible — in reverse."

But there are other reviewers who would prefer that Madonna act her age, not her shoe or conical-bra size.

"Who wants to party with Madonna today?" asks the critic for England's Telegraph. "She looks exhausted and unhappy and MDNA leaves me feeling the same. It's not that a woman of 50 has no right to be on the dance floor. I'm all for that. But a woman who's putting so much visibly desperate energy into looking and sounding like a teenager is missing the point of pop, of parties … of life. The horribly cliched lyrics to these unoriginal disco 'n' dubstep numbers hint at the more alarming idea that Madonna still thinks like a teenager. Hearing that her idea of romance is giving a lover the password to her phone makes me wonder if she's botoxed her brain."

One thing most critics agree on: the album is much better than its first two singles, "Girl Gone Wild" and "Give Me All Your Luvin'," would have suggested.

"The opening song on her 12th studio album is so disheartening," says the BBC's reviewer. "It's a fairly charmless genero-banger called 'Girls Gone Wild' on which this 53-year-old mother-of-four trills: 'You got me in the zone / DJ play my favourite song.' MDNA picks up as soon as it finishes... There's no denying MDNA delivers thrills. In true Ciccone fashion, club pop pounders like 'Some Girls,' 'Love Spent' and 'Turn Up the Radio' seem to push a bit harder than the competition — that last one's got a drop like an open manhole. MDNA also has something the last two Madge albums lacked: ballads, both of which are quite lovely... It's got its faults, but MDNA isn't just a good pop album, it's a good Madonna album too."

The Chicago Sun-Times also encouraged readers to overlook the teaser tracks. "MDNA is also significantly better than we've been led to believe," wrote Thomas Conner. "The bright but banal Super Bowl performance, the string of surprisingly weak singles preceding the full-length, her directorial film debut ("W.E.") — you'd be forgiven a healthy fear that Madge has spread herself too thin for the sake of satisfying the latest line item in her pioneering, $120 million deal with Live Nation announced in 2007... The selection of singles has been confounding... MDNA, though, despite a rough start, is a revved-up emotional roller coaster full of pop both sunny and bleak, all of it squarely engineered for the dance floor... MDNA is a trip worth taking."

A mixed three-star review from London's Guardian also pressed the ignore-the-singles point. "If you'd only heard the singles from MDNA you'd mistakenly think it was as much of a dud as its predecessor, 2008's Hard Candy. 'Girl Gone Wild' and 'Give Me All Your Luvin'' are clumsy rave-pop, a style so effective at erasing Madonna's personality that during 'I'm Addicted' she's reduced to chanting the album title in a bid to be heard above the clattering drums... Yet the more relaxed, less stentorian tracks sparkle. 'Turn Up the Radio' is the kind of giddy, live-for-the-moment tune that made everyone fall for her in the first place... And the final stretch, all of it co-produced by her most longstanding and sympathetic collaborator, William Orbit, sounds as if it's been borrowed from an entirely different and much better project."

Rolling Stone's enthusiastic review is among those praising the songs that get into the groove of alluding to her divorce. "Revealing herself has always been part of her art, and this is hardly her first album that's dark, messy and conflicted. But MDNA stands as Madonna's most explicit work. Only who would have expected her to be this explicit with her feelings? How explicit? 'Wake up, ex-wife/This is your life.' 'I tried to be your wife/Diminished myself, I swallowed my light.' 'Lawyers/Suck it up/Didn't have a prenup'... She's been personal, but never this detailed before... She has cross-wired exposure and pain, which gives this set of confessions their discomforting immediacy... There's something remarkable about Madonna's decision to share her suffering the way she once shared her pleasure."

England's NME also appreciated the confessional aspects most. "In the end, MDNA is a ridiculously enjoyable romp, but oddly not for the bits that are supposed to be fun. Instead, it's the psychotic, soul-bearing stuff that provides listeners with some of the most visceral stuff she's ever done... It takes a Stanley knife to revenge, religion and disco." NME particularly loved not just the soul-baring ballads about her divorce but "Gang Bang," in which she repeatedly urges death upon an adversary: "Madge bleats on like some antagonistic disco Fury driven to the edge by her thirst for vengeance. And gosh, it's thrilling stuff. Our guess is that this slice of boldly crafted noir-house is the once-Mrs Ritchie addressing her divorce from Guy in blackly comic terms. (Is it a coincidence that the song's title sounds like a parody of one of the flicks in the mockney auteur's cinematic oeuvre?)"

Here are excerpts from a few other reviews -- many of them, of course, completely contradictory:

The Wrap/Reuters: "'Girl Gone Wild' may be the worst single she's ever released -- -- and maybe as bad as anything anyone else could or will release this year -- but it's no bellwether. Because who could have guessed from that ghastly teaser that MDNA would turn out to be Madonna's best album since the Material Matron was still in her 30s?... If you can put on your vapid lyric blinders, MDNA is mostly good, unpretentious, highly danceable fun that makes willful middle-aged regression seem like a perfectly sound idea... Spend the extra $3 or so and get the full-length version. Madonna will thank you, and, if she's telling the truth about her divorce, so will the Guy Ritchie alimony fund."

The San Francisco Chronicle: "Songs such as 'I'm Addicted' and 'Love Spent' are built around the kind of cheezoid techno beats that result from downing too many energy drinks in the studio... Throughout, it feels as if Madonna is merely playing catch-up. The dubstep breaks. The throwaway lyrics. The lack of vowels. In the age of Gaga, this simply won't do."

Associated Press: "At 53, she's still got it going on. And thankfully so... (It's) full of upbeat dance jams and simmering slow grooves, and it delivers for the most part... The dance sound dominates most of the 12-track set, but Madonna sometimes trips over on her own disco ball. 'Gang Bang' is a complete mess.. She shines brightest when she brings down the pace. 'Falling Free' is soothing, the Golden Globe-winning 'Masterpiece' from her film W.E.is soft and classic, and 'I (Expletive) Up' sounds like a raw and honest apology to an ex (perhaps another ode to Ritchie)."

Los Angeles Times: "A few tracks on MDNA are punctuated with a dubstep 'bass-drop,' a current electronic effect-song hook typified by a halting sonic skid and massive low-end rumble that drives dance floors batty. But each appearance of it sounds tacked on 'for the kids,' as if Frank Sinatra had used a sitar on 'My Way' in 1969. Much of the music on the new album could have appeared on any random electronica collection of the last decade... The Madonna of today has lost the art of surprise, and the shock and awe she used to inspire with each new move have gone the way of her bullet bra and taffeta skirts."

Hitfix: "For all her success, there's always seemed to be something remote about Madonna, as if she's behind glass. So it comes as a bit of a shock at first that tucked within MDNA's often sterile beats, she shows the most emotion that we've heard from her. Talk about confessions on a dancefloor... MDNA is far from a perfect album and it's not likely to make any fan forget her classic hits, but it far surpasses Madonna's last studio album, 2008's Hard Candy."

New York magazine/Vulture: "There is much expensive workmanship and machine-tooling around here, but not much … Madonna. It's frustrating, because there are things toward the end of MDNA that suggest the project could have been more interesting. The last few tracks circle back toward that brave-and-lonely ballad voice: It's the sound of Madonna singing songs, as opposed to the sound of Madonna making awkward small talk with machines."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "MDNA evokes an inescapable club ambiance, even as it compellingly reminds us why the music legend still reigns as the enduring Queen of Pop. In short, the album is a dancefloor slave/party animal's dream record fueled by a channel-surfing of moods and emotions running the gamut from rage and longing to danger and desire. At a tidy 50 minutes, the 12-track CD deserves repeated listens. It's so tantalizingly good that there's hardly a dull moment."

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MDNA comes out this week, and only on Yahoo! Music, Madonna's fans can enter to win exclusive VIP tickets to her highly anticipated world tour.  These "in the pit" tickets are for fans only and cannot be purchased; they can only be won on Yahoo! Music by uploading a photo of oneself with the MNDA album cover to the Flickr group http://flickr.com/groups/MDNA. The contest begins today and runs through April 23 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Go here to upload your photo and enter to win VIP Madonna tickets now!

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