Hard Candy

Hard Candy sounds bloody expensive, but has precious little to declare except an infatuation with its own reflection in a nightclub mirror.

There’s such a thing as trying too hard, and yet not trying hard enough. If the pursuit of fame is this age’s most chav-ishly common impulse, busting your hump to remain relevant can seem just as undignified.

Going by the Hard Candy cover art and video for the non-song ‘4 Seconds’, Madonna has contracted a bad case of Jaggeritis. Yes, she’s in incredible shape, but how much neurosis and physical pain does it take to look like that at 50? One might argue that the visuals and music are church and state, but when there’s more attention paid to wardrobe selection and dance routines than melodic qualty control, the listener is left chomping knuckle.

Madonna albums now come weighted with a tangible sense of their own self-importance, and with Hard Candy (great title), the stakes are higher than ever. The ponderous American Life collection was one damp squib from start to finish, and if she redeemed her pop stock with ‘Hung Up’, a truly fantastic dance single, she now needs a hefty artistic statement on a par with Like A Prayer, the underrated Bedtime Stories or her career highpoint Ray Of Light.

This ain’t it.

Madge has always excelled at poaching underground producers on the cusp of stardom, but both Pharrell Williams and Timbaland have been spreading themselves thin of late, freelancing through endless successions of single-for-hire gigs rather than getting lost in the longform. Here, ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You’ is Justin redux, ‘Spanish Lesson’ a shameless rehash of ‘She Wants To Move’, and for a flagship single, ‘4 Seconds’ has a whole lotta Timba (’lake and ’land), but not so much as a sniff of a verse melody, let alone a chorus.

Maybe Madge’s problem is she thinks dance grooves and songwriting craft are mutually incompatible, an assumption refuted by any amount of classic Philly soul, Chic-era disco standards or Grace Jones productions.

‘Candy Shop’ is a weak Prince imitation with slithery rhythms, mannered vocals, some groaningly obvious sugar-nookie analogies (“I got Turkish delight baby and so much more”) and – again – no tune to speak of, while ‘Give It 2 Me’ is a bluebeat-inflected robot disco track with an oddly uncommitted and sexless vocal. Further in, ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Miles Away’ are cute confections, and ‘Dance 2Night’ has a resounding Lipps Inc. thwack to the backbeat, but once more, the tunes are duds.

It’s hardly any accident that ‘She’s Not Me’ is the best thing here, an angsty exercise in doppleganger jealousy sweetened by a jaunty Nile Rodgers-esque arrangement, ‘Bad Girls’ groove and daring middle-eight. That the most affecting song on the record is an expression of vulnerability rather than haughty couture speaks volumes.

Hard Candy sounds bloody expensive, but has precious little to declare except an infatuation with its own reflection in a nightclub mirror. The impartial listener wishes Madonna would reconnect with a collaborator who’ll promote her proven songwriting skills over sonic nous, because she’s capable of a far more substantial legacy than a waxworks museum of self-cultivated iconography.

Key Track: ‘She’s Not Me’

 

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