Just in case you had imagined that age had mellowed her — or, worse, rendered her safely irrelevant — Madonna opens her 12th studio album with one of the cannier provocations of her career. As synthesized strings hum in the background, she begins to recite the Act of Contrition, a traditional Catholic prayer for the forgiveness of sins. But rather than end the prayer with the usual promise to do penance and amend her life, Madonna simply declares, "I want so badly to be good."
Not the way you'd expect a song called Girl Gone Wild to begin, is it?
Contrite she's not, but that's precisely the point. MDNA is about addictions, the seductive allure of good times and bad behaviour; even the album's title is a pun that equates the singer's name with MDMA, the chemical acronym for the drug ecstasy. So as the synths pulse and the drum machines pound out a post-house groove, what else is she going to sing but "I know I shouldn't act this way … but I'm a bad girl anyway"?
Ever the tease, she fills the album with provocative titles like Gang Bang and I'm a Sinner, but the songs themselves are hardly what you'd think. While the defiantly upbeat I'm a Sinner finds her insisting in the chorus she's a sinner "and I like it that way," the bridge has her asking Sts. Christopher, Sebastian, Anthony and Thomas Aquinas to "catch me before I sin again." Rick Santorum will doubtless find it shamelessly immoral, but the lyric is a pretty apt summation of the modern moral dilemma, in which everyone decries sin but no one really wants to be free from temptation.
Gang Bang, meanwhile, is a Frankie-and-Johnny-style revenge fantasy with club beats augmented by small arms fire. Madonna knows that she's going to hell for shooting her lover down, but that's fine with her, because she hopes to meet him there and kill him again. Still, that's almost mild compared to I Don't Give A, in which she rehashes the end of her marriage to Guy Ritchie. Different circumstances, but once again she sings the same refrain: "I tried to be good."
The thing is, Madonna is actually very good this time out. The music is never less than invigorating, striking a perfect balance between dance-club insistence and pop-radio insinuation, while the lyrics are as playful as they are provocative. Even if some of the new tunes simply update old tricks, as when Give Me All Your Luvin' taps the same girl-group vein that Cherish mined 26 years ago, she still manages to be modern enough to give both Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. a run for their money.
Never count this woman out.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
- The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond
- Original Soundtrack
- Three stars
Best known for his deft touch with traditional folk and Americana, T-Bone Burnett is probably not the obvious choice for the soundtrack to an apocalyptic teen thriller. But his Hunger Games works precisely because the songs don't push the expected buttons. By harking back to the spooky allure of gothic folk, the album finds common ground for Arcade Fire (with the harrowing, biblical Abraham's Daughter), Taylor Swift (the dark-but-hopeful Safe and Sound) and the Maroon Five (the gospel-tinged Come Away to the Water). Not all of the songs here are in the movie, but that's fine; the goal is to extend the mood, not relive the action, and that's no game. J.D. Considine
- Busting Visions
- Arts & Crafts
- Three stars
This is sharp-edged power-prance – some wild trip, oh yeah. The co-writing, instrument-swapping Torontonians and Feist producer Robbie Lackritz dazzle with know-how, Queen-and-Sun King-worshipping harmonies and retro-touches (With Eyes Closed is dusk-lit, back-in-the-day British psychedelia). The melodic presence of cohort Afie (Bahamas) Jurvanen is nicely felt throughout. On the jaunty and flowery Stop the Train, Neil Quin sings "stop me if you've heard this before / I can tell you look kinda bored." Sure, it's a touch derivative, but boring it ain't. Punch my ticket, Zeus, I'm in for the full ride. Brad Wheeler
- The Wilderness
- Cowboy Junkies
- Three stars
You say wilderness; Cowboy Junkies say life – sorrow, beauty, fragility, bleeding, anger, the search and, at some point, the truth. The Wilderness is the final component of the veteran alt-country band's ambitious four-album project, The Nomad Series. Nomad, as in moving from style to style, with this fourth disc a return to its classic form: Languid, hazy, thoughtful and acoustic, with the downcast, motherly purr of Margo Timmins working its comfortable effect. "But I live in this world, what do I do," she asks on the bittersweetly fiddled Staring Man: The answer: "Stand ground and you take what comes, and every night check on your desire to run." Lovely stoicism, from the Junkies, again. B.W.
- Time thy Musicke to thy Hart: Tudor and Jacobean music for private devotion by Tomkins, Campion, Byrd, Tallis, Dowland and Gibbons
- Stile Antico and Fretwork
- harmonia mundi
- Four stars
English composers of the late Renaissance had a strange affection for cross relations, dissonances created when voices moving independently and in opposition passed too close for comfort. Held at length, these would grate, but instead they are almost immediately absorbed into the stream of counterpoint. Momentary shadows across an otherwise harmonious landscape, they alert us to the shadow of religious dissent that darkened English religious life during this period, as Catholics or Protestants, depending upon the current monarch's tolerance, sang their respective motets and anthems behind the closed doors of domestic (and sometimes secret) chapels. The superb English vocal ensemble Stile Antico interprets this exquisite music with intimacy and a pliant, subtle fervency; Fretwork, on a more ethereal plane, contributes plangent selections for viol consort alone. Elissa Poole