Invariably expectations for a new Madonna album are high. More often than not they’ve been met and surpassed (2003’s American Life notwithstanding). 1989’s Like A Prayer won over the rock media and 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.
2005’s glossy disco-esque Confessions On A Dance Floor cannily plundered the best of the 70s and sold well all around the world, with the exception of the States. That’s why her new album, Hard Candy, out 26 April, is clearly targeted at putting Madonna back on top of the pop charts and radio formats from Hollywood to Houston.
In Madonna’s 25-year recording career, Hard Candy most resembles 1994’s Bedtime Story -“ her sticky valentine to the hot black producers of the era. This time round though, there’s no trace of Babyface, or Dallas Austin, but in their place Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and posse.
Album opener Candy Shop is jaunty, if silly, and one of the weaker of the 12 tracks. Next up, 4 Minutes is a virtual join-the-dots exercise in how to make an American hit, circa 2008. It’s not her greatest single, but it handed Madonna the honour of being the artist with the most top ten hits in the US -“ edging past Elvis Presley.
Tracks 3-5 are your one-stop Candy shop for future hits. Give It To Me is Get Together remodelled in the electro-funk style of 1983’s Holiday; Heartbeat is the most traditional Madonna song here; then comes sweet urban pop with echoes of Nelly Furtado’s Say It Right on Miles Away.
Sadly, She’s Not Me -“ a bitchy, catchy disco groover that appears to be the Queen of Pop taking direct aim at her competition -“ is let down with a bombastic middle section and from the half-way point onwards Hard Candy is more miss than hit. Of Incredible the less said the better. Beat Goes On has an early 80s vibe, and a curt Kanye West rap in which he mentions doing F (?), but it dissolves into a meandering mess.
Hard Candy is redeemed at this point by Dance 2night -“ courtesy of the Timbaland/Justin Timberlake duo, harking back to mid-80s Janet Jackson. Track 10, Spanish Lesson, is plodding, Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You has echoes of JT’s own Cry Me A River, and the closing Voices comes on like a veritable act of contrition for what is essentially 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, keeping the most recognisable voice in pop uncluttered and out front. It’s when she is tossed, boxing gloves first, into the mix, along with all manner of production pots and pans, that Hard Candy goes a tad sticky.