Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What Madonna Should Do Next

Madonna "Something To Remember" (compilation, 1995)

1. I Want You (with Massive Attack)
2. I'll Remember
3. Take A Bow
4. You'll See
5. Crazy For You
6. This Used To Be My Playground
7. Live To Tell
8. Love Don't Live Here Anymore
9. Something To Remember
10. Forbidden Love
11. One More Chance
12. Rain
13. Oh Father
14. I Want You (Orchestral) [with Massive Attack]

Her marriage to Guy Ritchie may or may not be in trouble, but after the disappointment of the recent “Hard Candy” LP, marital strife might just inspire Madonna to an artistic renaissance.

Last month, the tabloid papers were awash with speculation on the state of Madonna’s marriage. Just the usual gossipy prattle you expect really. In April Madonna released her latest LP, “Hard Candy”, featuring collaborations with Pharell Williams, Kanye West, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. It was something of a disappointment after the brilliant “Confessions On A Dancefloor”. Despite boasting the number one single “4 Minutes”, much of the new album’s 40 minutes seemed to take 4 hours to tick away. Only the current single “Beat Goes On” (a throwback to the era of 80s Soul Weekenders) and the polite but charming “Miles Away” really leaped out at the listener. Madonna always does this, of course. She succumbs to the law of diminishing returns only to arrest the rot about three albums down the line. Her next album will either be disastrous or it will be another, surprising, career highlight. If she’s aiming for the latter option, perhaps she should explore the complications of her personal life.

Back in 1989, after a painful divorce from Sean Penn, Madonna released what was by far her best album up to that point, “Like A Prayer”. Apparently, the recording process was torturous, delayed by the singer’s gloom, punctuated by extended sobbing sessions and much soul-searching. It may well have been painful for its creator, but it’s hard to deny that the resulting record was terrific. “Oh Father” and “Keep It Together” were ruminations on broken homes, “Dear Jessie” an exercise in comforting infantilism, “Cherish” was the moment of optimism amidst the anguish, and the title track was The Bold Statement. According to Lucy O’Brien’s superb study of the history of women in pop, rock and soul, “She Bop”, even the fact that Madonna ditched the peroxide and allowed her natural auburn locks to roam free was a statement. It said she wasn’t just the sexualized blonde strumpet of media imaginings - she was an individual, not just a marketing man’s puppet, and that she needed a change. Of course, a mere eighteen months after the album’s release she was blonde again, and cavorting with some manly hunk in the video for “Justify My Love” but that’s where a reputation as a sex-pot will lead you.

Since then, the “Ray Of Light” album has come to be seen as her best work but, for me, Madonna’s most interesting characteristic is her way with a despondent tear-soaked ballad. And for that reason, the 1995 compilation “Something To Remember” is a fantastic record. When I was a child in the 1980s it always seemed that the sort of pop the girls at school really liked wasn’t the product of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s brainstorming sessions, or the enthusiastically received (in the music press) output of The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys or New Order. The girls at school preferred weepies. You were more likely to catch my elder sister and her playground friends singing “Crazy For You” or “Live To Tell”. Skip forward to the mid 90s, and ballads like “This Used To Be My Playground”, “You’ll See” and “Take A Bow” are the memorable Madonna songs. And when you remember that those 90s singles came after a truly low-ebb for Madonna - the release of 1992’s underwhelming “Erotica” album, and its attendant book “Sex” - a light-bulb pops in this writer’s head. The surest way for Madonna to turn around her lagging fortunes is to play to her real strength, which is singing brilliant big-balled ballads. You’ll find all of the best ones on “Something To Remember”.

She has of course had the occasional tender moment since the electro-revival of “Ray Of Light”. Some of that album’s more enduring moments include the terrific “The Power Of Goodbye”, lead single “Frozen” and the underappreciated “Little Star” (I say “underappreciated” because it’s lurking on a pop album, and albums are a rock business, right kids?). Since “Ray Of Light”, Madonna has pursued that dancey pop direction, best heard on the barnstorming likes of “Hung Up” and “Music”. But it feels like Madonna’s output this decade has been inconsistent. The general tunelessness and crap rapping of “American Life” didn’t help her critical reputation, and now “Hard Candy” has shown that Madonna is quite capable of following a genuinely great album with a frustratingly patchy one. If singles are anything to go by, let it be remembered that you could have picked almost anything for release from “Confessions…”, whereas this time it’s hard to say which of “Hard Candy”’s perfunctory r’n’b trots will be chosen next.

When Madonna fails in her attempt to make us dance, she can always rely on her ability to make us cry. That’s why I’m hoping her next album will be a blub-athon of mammoth proportions.