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Album Review: Madonna "Hard Candy"

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ArjanWrites.com guest blogger Marc Andrews was invited to an exclusive listening session at Warner Music in Sydney on Friday to hear Madonna's entire new album "Hard Candy." He wrote up a review of the entertainer's much anticipated new album exclusively for ArjanWrites.com. A big thanks to Marc for sharing his candid thoughts about the album. "It’s a bit like sticking your hand blindly into the candy jar and coming up with trick after trick when you keep hoping for a treat," he writes about part of the album. Read on for the entire review.

Invariably expectations for a new Madonna album are always high. More often than not they’ve been judiciously met and quite often surpassed (2003’s "American Life" notwithstanding). 1989’s still radiant "Like A Prayer" finally won over the rock media and nearly a decade later Ray of Light grabbed back a legion of lapsed Madonna admirers, caught up in the intervening downward spiral of Sex, musicals and bad movies.

Now a decade on from that Grammy-winning triumph and Madonna is due another pop-time-capsule-of-an-album. With 2005’s glossy disco-esque "Confessions On A Dance Floor" she cannily plundered the best of the '70s to arrive at something whose unrelenting shimmery beats and dazzling euro-dance hooks rivalled her first two early 80s albums, "Madonna" and "Like A Virgin." It sold well all around the world, with the exception of her birth-home, the US of A.

That’s why her new album, "Hard Candy," released later this month, is so very clearly targeted at righting that regretful wrong and putting Madonna back on top of the pop charts and radio formats from Hollywood to Houston and all stops in between.

In Madonna’s now 25-year, Hall of Fame-awarded, recording career, the album that "Hard Candy" most resembles in context is 1994’s "Bedtime Story." That was Madonna’s sticky valentine to the hot black producers of the time after 1992’s icy house-brewed "Erotica" left her high and, well, dry. This time round though, there’s no trace of Babyface (producer of Bedtime’s 1995’s US #1 "Take A Bow"), or Dallas Austin (Bedtime’s underrated lead single Secret), but in their place Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and posse.

Strangely, album opener "Candy Shop," (almost identical to the version that leaked online a year ago), is one of the album's weaker tracks and doesn’t bode well for the rest of the 12-track set. Still, any song with Madonna making smutty double entendres out of lyrics as knowingly silly as "I got Turkish delights" can’t be taken too seriously.

On track two the big guns (or should that be "gums"?) are wheeled out. While "4 Minutes" is a virtual join-the-dots exercise in how to make an American hit, circa 2008, it’s undoubtedly a grower. With so many busy elements (those blaring horns, the cutesy banter trading with guest star Justin Timberlake – relegated to a "featuring" role in the credits – and Timbaland hovering close by) "4 Minutes" succeeds on a number of levels. It's not Madonna’s greatest single ever, and one that will no doubt age very dis-gracefully, but the best track to right US chart wrongs. Want proof? This week "4 Minutes" soared to #3, handing Madonna the honour of now being the artist with the most top ten hits in the US – edging past Elvis Presley. Tick-tock, tick-tock indeed!

Thankfully, the record's tasty triple selection of tracks 3-5 are all prime examples of what Madonna does best – memorable pop with great choruses that’ll ricochet globally for months to come. If you’re looking for singles #2, #3 and #4, here’s your one-stop Candy shop.

"Give It To Me" is Confession’s "Get Together" cleverly remodeled in the winning electro-funk style of her classic 1983 breakthrough single "Holiday." Pharrell Williams must have been itching for years to upgrade that particular Madonna standard and may well have just managed too. We’re guessing a sure shot heir to "4 Minutes."

That’s followed by "Heartbeat," the most "traditional" Madonna song here. Not only is it yet another ode to getting down – "when I dance I feel free" – in the finest Into The Groove tradition, but boasts a chorus as sweet as, well, candy. Fans have been waiting decades for Madonna to utter a line as club-friendly as ITG’s "only when I'm dancing can I feel this free" and Heartbeat’s "see my booty get down" is a fitting, albeit bootylicious, successor.

Finishing off the delicious trifecta is "Miles Away" – sweet urban pop with an undercurrent of melancholy and unmistakable echoes of Nelly Furtado’s "Say It Right." It’s a poignant tale of being far from the one you love and hints at what might be going on in Madonna’s private life. For someone who’s long crafted her musical art from personal experiences, "Hard Candy" is almost devoid of that usual frankness and "Miles Away" might be the only crack in the façade we’re allowed to view this time around. Or perhaps she left that all for the punchy cover shot?!

Next up is "She’s Not Me" – a snippy, bitchy, catchy disco groover that appears to be the Queen of Pop taking direct aim at her competition. Yet with so much early promise it’s tragically let down with an unfortunately bombastic middle section. From then on it just gets messy as spooky, swirling noises throb relentlessly throughout, giving the impression Pharrell fell asleep on the mixing board while the track was still running.

That’s the biggest complaint for the rest of the album – so many of the songs have great potential, yet end too raw and unfinished. From the middle onwards "Hard Candy" is definitely more miss than hit. It’s a bit like sticking your hand blindly into the candy jar and coming up with trick after trick when you keep hoping for a treat.

Of "Incredible" the less said the better. Suffice to say it in no way lives up to its name. “Sex with you is incredible” is one of the few remarkable lines uttered during this quite unremarkable track.

"Beat Goes On" is significantly different to the version that also leaked last year. It’s yet another tribute to dancing, with more of an early 80s vibe, and at first seems like the perfect blend of old skool Madonna with new skool grooves. After a curt Kanye West rap in which he mentions "doing F," whatever that may be, things once again dissolve into a meandering mess. The chorus is brazenly forgotten about, spoiling what could easily have been another Madonna classic. On and on it does indeed go.

"Hard Candy" is redeemed at this point by "Dance 2night" – with the Timbaland/Timberlake duo close by once more. Harking back to mid-80s Janet Jackson with its jaunty freestyle R&B approach, it sports a brain-hugging chorus that could easily have been stolen from some boy band archive. Hmmm, now who could be responsible for that?

Track ten, "Spanish Lesson," is mercifully short. Guess what? There are more references to the dance floor, a Spanish guitar tossed in, alongside some plodding beats, and it’s all over so quickly it barely rates a mention. Ho hum.

The closest thing to a ballad on the album is "Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You" where Justin once again makes his presence felt double-tracking Madonna. With echoes of JT’s own "Cry Me A River," it proves to be yet again a decent pop song left wanting under the weight of the “everything including the kitchen sink” production approach.

Finally, "Hard Candy" comes to a haunting end with "Voices." Cue Justin uttering the opening line: “who is the master, who is the slave?” Well, that certainly gives us plenty to ponder! Over a moody, mid-tempo beat "Voices" comes on like a veritable act of contrition for what has essentially been a collection of confessions on a urban dance floor.

Overall "Hard Candy" is patchy, but blessed with a handful of great singles (which is what you’d expect from any Madonna album) that stick close to the winning formula of keeping the most recognisable voice in pop uncluttered and out front. It’s when she’s tossed boxing gloves first into the mix, along with all manner of production pots and pans (a case of too many cooks perhaps?) that "Hard Candy" goes a tad sour.

Expectations-wise, file "Hard Candy" alongside 2000’s inconsistent "Music" album – which suffered coming post-Ray Of Light and delivering a truly killer lead single that promised too much. Likewise, beyond the handful of obvious singles, things start to get somewhat sticky on "Hard Candy."

As it is, it’s a sweet enough treat with just enough for longtime Madonna fans to cherish, or (ahem!) get their teeth into. And for those who suspected Madonna was well past her use-by-date in her 50th year, it’s mostly a timely reminder she’s still got a lot more than just "4 Minutes" to save the world’s charts with.

Marc Andrews is a media and entertainment journalist who writes for MEDIAWEEK magazine (www.mediaweek.com.au) and DNA Magazine (dnamagazine.com).

April 5, 2008 in Album Reviews, Guest Blogger: Marc Andrews, Madonna | Permalink

Comments

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Great, interesting review—thanks! Though I think using the "trick after trick" line in the intro is a bit misleading since he was referring to "the middle onwards" and the first half seems to be packed with hits. Can't wait to hear it all.

Posted by: Matthew Rettenmund at Apr 6, 2008 10:18:30 AM

Very nice interview, and kind of what I was expecting from this album of music from her highness. Too many cooks in the kitchen is a very good description of what may cause this collection to not be as well received as it could have been.

Posted by: Marti at Apr 6, 2008 12:36:25 PM

What is a music critic really? I'm not going to buy this album, expecting it to have low points just becase he thought so. A critic is just someone who gets paid to give an opinion is all. Other critics have also listened to her album, and gave it much better reviews. Just an opinion. I should have went to school to be a critic LOL

Posted by: Wally Matthew at Apr 6, 2008 3:20:16 PM

Was this review that hard for you to swallow, Wally Matthew?

Let's face it: Madonna is no longer at the top of her game. "4 Minutes" should have given you some indication.

This is a simple case of Madonna relying solely on the tired work of many of today's "in" producers. The result is a predictable product that will leave many disappointed.

Posted by: Josh at Apr 6, 2008 4:26:33 PM

Will take the M over the K any day. x

Posted by: at Apr 6, 2008 6:04:11 PM

Umm Josh, if anyone is a true fan they will buy and they will enjoy !

I am such a fan. That's the definition of a fan.

I read this review with much anticipation, I take it for what it is....one person's opinion.

I'm not even really sure what kind of "fan" the critic is.

All I know is, I've been a diehard fan since day 1 (I was 11 when I saw her on that Saturday morning on ABC's American Bandstand), and have been a fan ever since.

So I guess that means I'm going to be first in line to buy her album, and I will enjoy it thoroughly !

I can't wait !

Posted by: Marc at Apr 6, 2008 6:27:03 PM

great review, still can't wait !

Posted by: jill at Apr 6, 2008 7:54:37 PM

Since I absolutely love 4 minutes I'll make my decision on the album when I buy it. I never listen to critics since it's just an opinion. I absolutely love what I've heard of the song "miles away" too. I can't wait.

Posted by: susan at Apr 6, 2008 8:17:54 PM

I always snicker whenever I read a critic referring to "Music" the album as "inconsistent" or disjointed as he does here. To that I ask, when one looks back to 2000, could there have come a more important and influential album in shaping the sound of the world of pop music for the years ahead up till today, while at the same time highliting Madonna's vast range and love of diversity in music? To compare this new album to "Music" for me is an endorsement, and a flattering complement for the new album!

Posted by: at Apr 6, 2008 10:08:47 PM

I enjoyed the article, in large part to the critics understanding of most Madonna albums and her ability to release hit songs. However, having disagreed with his review of Candy Shop I quickly second guessed everything else written. I once felt comfortable guessing which songs would become pop hits soon after hearing them ,but radio is now more than ever a jaded and corrupt business. Many great songs get shelved by corporate radio and many not so great tunes soar to the #1 spot and are almost instantly forgotten. I can certainly appreciate a critics personal opinions, but usually I am only reading to get descriptive details of music instrumentation, genre and style. Today, critics should leave their "hit Meters" at home before listening. Candy Shop...a weaker track? Well if that song is weaker I can't wait to hear the stronger tracks since Candy Shop had my full attention the first time I listened to it and ever since.

Posted by: Keck at Apr 6, 2008 11:39:59 PM

I know it is not ‘spa’ or ‘therapist’ board here but I am so tired of hearing from ‘’opinion-makers’’ what a great album was ‘’Ray of Light’’ and the rest of well-known acknowledgements. ‘’Ray of Life’’ is masterpiece but I think ‘’Music’’ was fabulous album. It just bit really suffered from previous success of ‘’Ray of Light’’. I think it was such a trend maker in electronica dance pop. I don’t think Madonna’s only concern for making ‘’Hard Candy’’ as it is now was little success of ‘’Confessions’’ in US. ‘’Confession’’ is certainly one of the best dance albums of the edge and it had unbelievably great success in the rest of the world. The thing about ‘’Hard Candy’’ as I can sense from ‘’4 minutes’’ and ‘’Miles Away’’ or ‘’Candy Shop’’ (which I by the way love) is her tend to experiment and I totally admire it. I already ordered my copy and critics never mattered to me. I understand it is hard to acknowledge the fact that there won’t be any new ‘’Confession’’ (well Mariah keeps going with endless Emancipations and quite successfully) but this is Madonna : risking, experimenting and this is why I admire her and even there is some copy-paste (which I can’t really remember) I am sure there will be plenty of originality as well.

Posted by: Vaho at Apr 7, 2008 2:39:20 AM

Well this review was informative if nothing else, although I don't think too many true madonna fans will take it as gospel, especially when it mentions spanish lesson being over rather quickly, when it's the longest track on the record at 6 minutes.

I'll wait til I hear the whole album before I criticise, but many a reviewer has been quick to write M's records off and well, she's still the biggest musical artist of the century.

I do wish she had followed her usual pattern and worked with unknown producers rather than "it" American ones but I understand her reasonings for this. Madonna the song writer, producer and artist is still and always is the driving force behind all of her records and she's the consistent element that we love and consistently ensures her success!

Posted by: Adan at Apr 7, 2008 5:59:47 AM

Wow! Could that review be any more cloying or use any more clichéd, hackned candy-esque metaphors? Enough with the alliterations! Just write/review in a way that makes sense and doesn't pander.

Posted by: Molly O'Poverty at Apr 7, 2008 6:40:27 AM

Molly, you don't know what alliteration means.

Posted by: at Apr 7, 2008 8:22:44 AM

Wow this review surely got a lot of diehard Madonna fans in a tizzy!

And as for Madonna taking risks with this album...how is working with Pharrell/Timbaland/Justin Timberlake and every other "in" producer/artist considered "taking risks"? It just screams desperation and a blatant attempt to regain some relevance in the US.

I'm a fan of Madonna, but I realize she, too, can put out crappy music ('COAD' anyone?) I just don't feel the need to worship everything she shits out, which many of you folks seem to do. I want QUALITY material, not some tired garbage.

Posted by: Josh at Apr 7, 2008 11:15:32 AM

Madonna is climbing the Charts of the World again and as well in the US, that was her goal. Mission completed!

Love & Respect to Madonna, still Simply the Best after unbelieveable 25 Years.

Posted by: UweB at Apr 7, 2008 1:44:34 PM

MADONNA HARD CANDY ALBUM:
No one person can comment on an album just by listening to it once. Songs take time for them to grow on you sometimes while others may not last the test of time. Past Madonna albums eg. American Life and Music took time to grow and not always the best tracks are chosen for release as singles. Madonna overall has tried something a little differant making way for Madonna wanna be's to follow and so can take some listening to fully appreciate. The videos, live performances and remixes also help to shape peoples thoughs of what she has put out. Critics often don't take all this into account before saying their unkind things about her and her music without really thinking about what it really is, GREAT POP MUSIC.
LOTS OF LOVE MADONNA AND FANS ALIKE. I for one can't wait to hear the new album and many more in the years ahead.

Posted by: RITCHARD MCKIE at Apr 7, 2008 4:57:37 PM

Is there nothing a little, perhaps, unusual about a woman who's almost 50 dressing that way? I mean, I'm all for flaunting what you've got, but maybe it's time for Madonna to mature? I mean, she does have a ton of kids ... but maybe that's just me.

----
www.returnticketmusic.com

Posted by: ReturnTicket at Apr 7, 2008 5:05:44 PM

Umm Josh, You are not a true fan then.

Look up the definition.

It's obvious you're not as soon as you said COAD was crappy.

Posted by: Marc at Apr 7, 2008 5:20:38 PM

ReturnTicket says he/she is all for flaunting what you got, but not if Madonna does it???????

huh?
eh?
and
what?

Posted by: Mike at Apr 7, 2008 5:22:40 PM

Reviewing an album track by track is like reviewing a book chapter by chapter. It makes no sense. When you are ready to really review the album, let us know.

Posted by: Marcus Davis at Apr 7, 2008 7:05:51 PM

Oh, music, it's so... subjective. Reviews, as far as opinions go, are pointless, and everyone will agree and disagree, on so many levels.

I actually respect some of what is said here. I think Madonna has been the most fascinating and inspiring music-maker of our times, but this is why I'm a little deflated that she has chosen to drown herself out by her choice of collaborators, here. More Madonna, less JT, please.

What this misses, though, is that American Life is responsible for this, in so many ways. This was a candid, experimental, truly original work, but - somewhat hypocritically - it was so poorly received, critically and commercially. And yes, Madge has been focusing on pop targeting the masses, ever since. Which is a shame. I feel we'll never get an American Life, again. At least, however, CODF did still feel like Madonna - she has always bee smart enough to find smaller producers who compliment her, but these guys are who they are, and with that many egoes in one room, she's been silenced in the process. "Miles Away" and "Voices" are the only times this album really feels like Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone.

I think the sooner she gives the USA (with it's ridiculous, culturally isolated music tastes) the flick, the better. But I guess she has an ego, too, and likes being Her Madgesty.

Posted by: Aaron at Apr 7, 2008 8:56:23 PM

There's another preview/review, track by track, at
http://www.karinski.net/2008/04/first_listen_madonna_hard_candy_review.html
for those looking for some... um... different opinions.

Posted by: Steven at Apr 8, 2008 12:24:03 AM

I also think that "4 Minutes" is not her best single, although I have to say that she really gives something different in that song.

Despite the review, I'm still looking forward to this new album.

Posted by: Indra at Apr 8, 2008 7:43:08 AM

Oh, come on guys!

The review was absolutely fine, grow up and try to understand, that even a Madonna album can be average. Everyone knew, that after chosing Timberland and Pharrel (both on their creative peaks early 00s) it`s going to be a boring hip hop album simply crafted with desperation to put back Madonna on the US airplays after American Life.

Many comments saying they are diehard fans, and the ones who dare to say any critisism aren`t. I don`t think I`m the only one growing up listening to her music, and she is close to my heart. But I`m not blindfolded, if her new material is not state of art, I`m just simple delete it from my IPod.

She did take risky moves, experiencing with spiritual techno and french dance, but it seems like when her minimal electro pop was ignored and kind of hated all around the world, she became scared and left the risks behind with a rather silly disco album and now an equally uninspired urban one.

Well, bottom line is, the review was spotless, great job!!!

Posted by: Craig5 at Apr 8, 2008 5:51:43 PM

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