In 1994, Madonna released a very R&B-themed Bedtime Stories, which also featured some of her very first dabbles in electronica. From the leaked demo Shep Pettibone-penned "Love Won't Wait," or the eventually released b-side "Your Honesty," you'll hear that Madonna was going for an occasional old-school disco sound in addition to the friendly R&B and lite electronica. One track, "Don't Stop" is actually the only really hold-over from the sound, and it's a good change of pace on a really great album. It sounds like with Confessions Madonna finally got to make her dark disco album, and Hard Candy is her ultra-bright disco album.
First track "Candy Shop" is sprinkled with some candy-sex metaphors but too many to be clever and too few to be consistent. The beats are decent, and her lower range vocals sound great. Her high vocals, however, are a mess. The last minute is pretty painful, and while it sets the album up to be less impressive than one would hope, it doesn't even musically fit that well.
"Give It 2 Me" (which I can't help but think is a way better version of Britney Spears' "Gimme More") doesn't sound like a first track, admittedly, but it would've been a better foot to start on. Scissor Sisters would rock the hell out that song, and that's a really big compliment, you'll learn. For Madonna, the only folly is a Gwen Stefani-interlude (seriously, it's straight out of "Yummy") bit that kills the fun. She quickly recovers, but it's a sharp veer for what was looking to be the song to beat, for best track. It'll end up being #4 best by album's end.
If Stefani had done "Confessions on a Dancefloor," it would have included "Heartbeat." Good beat, good layered vocals (again she's singing a little high but it's processed better), but dumb-as-bricks lyrics. Admittedly, this is is probably her 19th song that is dedicated to the subject of dance as freedom (and "Into the Groove," "Music," "Everybody," "Jump," and "Don't Stop" all did it better), so maybe she's running out of ideas. If that is true, then maybe she should start writing songs about something else.
"Miles Away" has a similar riff as "Love Profusion," which may be intentional (and if it is, that's brilliant; sorta like "Love Profusion" 5 years later). It's a pretty, early 00's-sounding Madonna song that would sit comfortably with "Gone," or "Intervention," but with a bit more of a groove to it. Lyrically, it has a lot of repetition, but it's still one of the strongest. It will also probably be one of the most talked-about even if it never gets released as a single, as it seems pretty clearly about Guy Ritchie, who she is often separated from due to their busy lives. The media will have a field day picking apart the heavy-hearted sigh that comes with lines like "I guess we're at our best when we're miles away... so far away."
The clap-clap-clap of "She's Not Me" is infectious, and her verses are solid. The choruses sound a bit strained, vocally, again. It's also far too long, and features a cameo from Pharrell that needs to be edited out immediately; it is AWFUL. During the bridge, which is pretty decent, she deadpans "I know I can do it better," and she's absolutely right.
A much-hyped track called "Incredible" features the line "sex with you is incredible," but otherwise, it's pretty lame. A stuttering beat that doesn't ever seem comfortable with the melody or the lyrics, it's is long and uninteresting. The synth at mid-point is fun, but it just doesn't go anywhere.
When "Beat Goes On" was leaked on the internet as a demo, it was a pretty low point in Madonna's career. In finished form, with it's bells and glass-clinks, it's better, but still somewhat anemic. Again, better processed higher vocals, tho. A Kanye West cameo actually makes it more interesting; the ONE time a rapper's cameo improves the song. Don't get too used to it, Madonna.
"Dance 2Night" is THIRD dance-is-freedom track of the album, following "Beat Goes On" and "Heartbeat," and it's definitely the most solid. It's got a really cute chorus sound to it and will get your head bopping. Justin Timberlake, who also appears on the single "4 Minutes," adds a bit of "Rock Your Body" disco sweetness to it. If "4 Minutes," with it's Missy Elliot-cribbing horns, had any of it's charm, we'd have a much stronger first single.
Timberlake has a good effect on "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," which is very much like Timberlake's work with Rihanna ("Rehab") and his own solo material ("What Goes Around...", "Cry Me a River"). It is excellent, and the best song on the album. Apparently when Madonna tries to be Justin Timberlake, it works. When she tries to be Nelly Furtado, it doesn't. Next time: work with Timberlake (or, don't) but leave Pharrell and Timbaland to the nasal, midriff crowd.
Pharrell's "Spanish Lesson" fails on almost every level outside of the beat. Madonna's vocal sucks, the lyrics are painfully bad, and the music is not interesting enough to make up for it.
Final track "Voices" is a better version of Confessions' "Like it Or Not," or a more cynical "Gone" from Music Madonna has made a habit of ending her albums on a quietly anthemic, somewhat reserved downer ever since 1992's "Secret Garden" from Erotica. The methodology is working; they are often some of the best material on the albums. Indeed, "Voices" is very good.
Since Madonna is so versatile, it isn't a big deal to mention that her albums are only as good as her producers. They have all been appropriate for the time, all perfect for the songs, and all exactly where she needed to be, whether she was a lounge singer or in a lace wedding bodice. Hard Candy is a big misstep that may very well score her some hits, but will probably instead just allow media outlets to lace into her for trying so very, very hard to be sexy. She's never had to try so hard before.
Even Erotica, her most sexually upfront and sweatiest adventure, seemed effortless with it's gravelly vox and amazing songwriting. Hard Candy is probably going to just get a whole bunch of people thinking Madonna's the next Dina Lohan: trying very hard to wear the sexy mom jeans and hanging with the DJs at the club. I'm not saying she has to wrap herself in a mumu and sew up her vagina... I'm just saying that what is disposable pop music is acceptable for the wannabes of modern pop; it's a little off-putting from a woman who they will never live up to.
Download This: "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," "Voices," "Give It 2 Me," "Miles Away"