Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 12:46 UK

Review: Madonna's Hard Candy

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Cover of Madonna's Hard Candy
Hard Candy is Madonna's first studio album since 2005

On Madonna's 11th album, Hard Candy, the queen of pop invites us to imagine her as a confectioner running a musical sweet shop.

But, after sitting through the 12 tracks on offer here, you'll begin to wish she'd stocked more than two varieties of candy.

Those flavours come from two of America's most bankable songwriting teams: The Neptunes and Timbaland, who between them have conjured up hits for the likes of Britney Spears, Jay-Z, Missy Elliot and Justin Timberlake.

Timberlake himself crops up on five of the tracks, posing a particularly pertinent question about who is running the show when he asks "Who is the master? Who is the slave?" as the album closes.

This sort of top flight production is an unusual step for Madonna, who has a reputation for seeking out relatively obscure dance producers like Mirwais, Shep Pettibone and Stuart Price to helm her albums.

This time round, however, the queen of reinvention is trying to win back the hearts of the US audience - who were largely unimpressed with her 2005 love letter to disco, Confessions On A Dancefloor.

The main themes are love, revenge, sex and music - subjects on which Madonna surely has little left to say

It all starts off well enough. Opening track Candy Shop is an agenda-setting call to arms, with Madonna promising a "special connection" and "plenty of heat".

The minimal, skittering drums are punctured by colossal stabs of synth, while Madonna purrs weak sweet shop-related innuendos: "Don't pretend you're not hungry, there's plenty to eat... I got Turkish Delights."

You get the picture.

Things step up a gear with the Justin Timberlake collaboration 4 Minutes, which features the best use of cowbell in pop since Free's All Right Now, but sounds so futuristic it could realistically have been beamed in from the end of the world.

'Pop moments'

Lyrically, the album plays it safe. Madonna may have been inspired to make a documentary about the Aids epidemic in Africa when she adopted two-year-old Malawian orphan David Banda, but you would be hard pressed to find any social commentary in her music.

The main themes are love, revenge, sex and music - subjects on which Madonna surely has very little left to say at this stage in her career.

Madonna performing at Live Earth in 2007
Hard Candy featurs five collaborations with Justin Timberlake

She even repeats herself, echoing Into The Groove when she sings "Don't you know, can't you see? When I dance I feel free" on Heartbeat.

Then again, Madonna has always been at her best when extolling the virtues of music as a release, and it is on Hard Candy's club-orientated tracks that she excels.

She's Not Me, a Neptunes production, feels like a five-minute musical summary of her career to date.

It kicks off with Chic-esque guitars that are reminiscent of Holiday before morphing into a pulsing club groove that could have been lifted straight from her last album.

Track three, Give It To Me, is already pencilled in as the album's second single. It is one of the record's few out-and-out pop moments, featuring a cute, bouncy beat and a sense of humour that has been missing from Madonna's music since her Dick Tracy days.

"If it's against the law, arrest me, if you can handle it, undress me," she chirps as the song builds to a blistering crescendo that will surely be the highlight of any future live set.

Blistering crescendo

But the song also showcases the fatal flaw in Madonna's battle plan. A middle section where she chants "get stupid, get stupid" instantly brings to mind The Neptunes' other female muse, Gwen Stefani.

Similarly, Timbaland's tracks are frequently reminiscent of his (superior) work with Nelly Furtado.

Madonna, a notoriously hard task master (she gave Justin Timberlake a vitamin shot when he appeared to be flagging during recording sessions) seems to have been unable to tame the idiosyncrasies of her omnipresent hitmakers.

Over and over again, she subsumes her pop sensibilities to their arsenal of clattering beats, hollered raps and over-fussy production.

On a ballad like Incredible, the overbearing din of an inexplicable electric guitar completely spoils an otherwise beautiful and delicate melody. It's almost like they threw everything at the wall to see what would stick, without realising it was a very sticky wall.

And that's a real shame because, if a handful of the tracks had been delivered to more producers with a touch more subtlety, Hard Candy could have ranked alongside Madonna's best.

As it stands, however, the album is more akin to Madonna's last attempt to harness the urban market, 1994's underwhelming Bedtime Stories.

Bah, humbug.

Hard Candy by Madonna is released across Europe on 28 April and in the US a day later.

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