Rock column, Mail on Sunday, April 20 2008

Hard Candy
Warner Bros, out next Monday

Hammersmith Apollo, London

Commercially, Madonna’s career is a story of staggering consistency. Her current single, 4 Minutes, is her 62nd top ten hit. Failure, for her, means releasing an album that only sells 5m copies. The last one, Confessions On A Dancefloor, sold 12m, and, across most of the world, put her back at the top of the heap.

Artistically, however, she is not consistent at all. Her last really satisfying album was Ray Of Light, ten years ago. Confessions On A Dancefloor consisted of one irresistible hit, Hung Up, and not much else. Its predecessor, American Life, was feeble. Madonna’s real work of art is her body: she puts in more time at the gym than the studio.

Now, as she jogs and stretches her way to her 50th birthday in August, that body is looking newer than ever, albeit in a slightly improbable way. She has a new approach to recording too. For years, her policy has been to use producers who are left-field and British or French – William Orbit, Mirwais, Stuart Price – as if she could see the need to offset her own mainstream American tendencies. They were the vinegar to her oil.

This time, she has used Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes on seven tracks, and Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Nate Danja Hills on the other five. These men are American, thoroughly mainstream, and much in demand already, especially with other female stars – Pharrell works with Gwen Stefani, Timbaland and Timberlake with Nelly Furtado, and Danja with Britney Spears. Having blazed the trail for all these women, Madonna now risks looking like a mum who pinches her daughters’ clothes.

It’s not hard to spot her motive, which is to do better in the US. Confessions sold only moderately there: according to Wikipedia, citing the fan-site, only one-seventh of its sales were in America, the lowest proportion for any of her albums.

Hard Candy should fix that, but at considerable cost. It is the most American record she has done since the early 1990s, and the least Madonna-ish. It’s standard-issue R’n’B, glossy but not engaging, all rhythm and no soul. For much of the time, you only know it’s her because of the eternally girlish vocals and the maddeningly lazy lyrics.

She has never let the quick wit she displays in interviews show up on a lyric sheet, and she is not about to start now. The words are weary and lifeless. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions,’ Madonna observes on 4 Minutes. ‘Can’t you see,’ she asks on Heartbeat, ‘when I dance, I feel free’ – a point she made more punchily 23 years ago, on Into The Groove.

In 1962, Elvis Presley had a hit with a Doc Pomus/Leiber & Stoller song, She’s Not You, which was sugary but charming and romantic. Madonna and Pharrell have come up with a song called She’s Not Me, which expresses jealousy, not yearning, and kills the charm stone dead. ‘She’s not me,’ sings Madonna, ‘She doesn’t have my name.’ Well, she wouldn’t, would she?

Pharrell supplies the best and worst of these songs. The best is Give It 2 Me, which is poppy, likeable, and will be the next single; the worst is Spanish Lesson, a leaden piece of Latin pop. Timbaland’s contributions are ordinary by his standards. Madonna has always leant toward the obvious in her melodies, and these tunes have no twists and turns. The album feels like a peg for a new image.

Meanwhile, Bjork has been showing how to stay fresh in rocking middle age. Her band comprises 10 soulful horn players (all female), two programmers, one drummer and one keyboard player. Guitars don’t get a look-in.

Bjork too has been working with Timbaland, but the result, Earth Intruders, is elemental and colossal rather than commercial. Her dress is made out of old curtains, her hat from multicoloured pompoms, and her show is halfway from a children’s party to an explosion in a special-effects factory, featuring flags, flames, lasers, streamers and tickertape.

The music is hit-and-miss, but there is a sliver of beauty in nearly every song, and the finale, Declare Independence – the cutting-edge call to arms that got Bjork into trouble in China – is fabulously stirring.

Like that? Try this
Holly Palmer: I Confess (Bombshell). Blue-eyed R’n’B with warmth and wit