Brought to You By the Letter M
On Madonna, Marling and Modest Mouse

I am perpetually behind on the cultural conversation.

It’s mostly my fault. While the pace of that conversation has definitely increased, the speed at which I listen, form thoughts and write those thoughts down has not. I still want four or five trips through an album before I review it, and I still want that process to include poring over the packaging and liner notes. So I’m beholden to release dates, and a slave to my own schedule and my own desire to do this thing as well as I can.

That means I am often reviewing things a week or two later than most other review sites. For instance, last week the talk was all about Kendrick Lamar’s monumental new album To Pimp a Butterfly. One might rightly expect that I would be giving this record the once-over in tm3am this week. But one would be wrong. I have it, I’ve heard it, I’ve talked about it online, but I’m not ready to write about it yet. That’ll be next week.

The problem is, the cultural conversation has already moved on this week to Sufjan Stevens and Death Cab for Cutie, thanks to NPR streaming new records from both of them. By the time I get to those, most likely on April 7, everyone will be on to something else. But I’m not sure what else I can do. I hope you all still find these useful, because I’m probably going to be a couple weeks behind everyone else for the foreseeable future.

That said, here are reviews of three albums that are not To Pimp a Butterfly. This week’s column is brought to you by the letter M.

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I don’t think it’s possible to overstate Madonna’s importance.

Everything good and bad about modern female-led pop music can be, in some way, traced back to Madonna. I was a kid when “Like a Virgin” hit – I didn’t have a clue what it was about, and was in fact much more into Weird Al’s “Like a Surgeon” – but as I grew up, Madonna did too. I remember realizing, at 13, what “Papa Don’t Preach” is about, and (as a good Christian kid) being both appalled and drawn to it. That feeling was magnified a couple years later when I saw the “Like a Prayer” video. Madonna was a professional button-pusher, and she has always been most interested in the reaction of a conservative male-driven world to a ballsy, sexually liberated, completely in-control woman.

And from moment one, Madonna was in control. She fought back against the notion of what a female pop star was supposed to be, and basically defined what it would be for the next three decades. Stars like Britney and Christina Aguilera were cast from the same mold, with the caveat that they tried to emulate Madonna instead of pushing things forward, remaking the world in her image, like she did. For my money, Lady Gaga and Janelle Monae are among the few who truly grasped what Madonna has been saying and built on it. Essentially, that message is this: have a vision, carry it out, be in charge and don’t let anyone stop you.

To me, Madonna is immortal. Which is why it’s been such a shame to watch the slide of her musical output over the past 10 years. Madonna used to set trends. Remember “Vogue,” on which she introduced Euro-dance to the rest of the world? Remember Ray of Light, her still-stunning collaboration with William Orbit that combined complex electronica with hummable pop? She kept the standards high through Music in 2000, but cracks began to show by the time of American Life in 2003.

Since then, she’s been a follower, trying to keep up with the latest club sounds and chasing the work of much younger artists. It’s a role she should not have to play – she’s freaking Madonna – and I don’t know why she’s been doing it. I can barely remember anything about 2008’s Hard Candy or 2012’s MDNA, except the sinking feeling that she’s trying too hard instead of just being who she is. She helped pave the way for the likes of Nicki Minaj, she doesn’t need to borrow cred from her with a guest spot. Madonna is 56 years old, and pop music royalty – if the kids don’t like her, so what.

All of which brings me to Rebel Heart, her 13th album. Its deluxe edition is a sprawling 19-song, 74-minute affair, which would seem like the very definition of trying too hard. It contains collaborations with Kanye West, Diplo and Avicii, among other of-the-minute producers. Madonna is pictured here holding a bloody human heart in her hand, giving herself stigmata with a metal spike, and clutching the pointy end of a sword to her chest. You’d be forgiven for not expecting very much, and for about half this record, you’d be right.

But the other half? There are 10 songs here that are the best, strongest, most Madonna songs she’s given us since the 1990s, and those are the ones I want to focus on. Rebel Heart brings the tunefulness and thoughtfulness back to Madonna’s music, and on its strongest material (“Devil Pray,” “Ghosttown,” “Hold Tight”) she sounds more comfortable, more at ease than she has in ages. These are songs worthy of her. “Hold Tight,” produced by Diplo, may be my favorite Madonna song since the Ray of Light days. The single, “Living for Love,” is her finest leadoff track since “Hung Up,” at least, and probably earlier.

What is it about these songs? Madonna would hate me for saying this, but she sounds older and wiser, more open and graceful. “Joan of Arc” is a ditty, really just four chords played on acoustic guitar and thick synths, but in its simple acknowledgement of pain (“I don’t want to talk about it right now, just hold me while I cry my eyes out”), it feels more real than anything on Hard Candy. “Cut me down a little, fucked me up a little,” she admits at the start of “Heartbreak City,” a piano-led ballad with a gospel choir in tow. “Inside Out” is a terrific electro-pop love song, all creeping bass and soaring vocals, and regular-edition closer “Wash All Over Me” is sweet and pretty.

And then there’s the title track, which closes the deluxe edition. But there is no edition of this record I can imagine that should not close with this. Over strummy acoustic guitars, she looks back with contentment over her life in the public eye. “Why can’t you be like the other girls, I said oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think it will ever be,” she sings, and if anyone can make those lines resonate, it’s Madonna. Just take these songs, the ones on which she aims for pure, grown-up pop with a sense of herself and her legacy, and you’d have her finest record since her glory days.

Of course, there’s the other half, the up-in-this-club half, and I’m sorry, but they’re mostly embarrassing. In recent weeks, Madonna has been handing out accusations of age-ism, and I guess I should line up for one, because it hurts me to hear someone with such a long history spit out something as insipid as “Bitch I’m Madonna.” (That’s the one with the Nicki Minaj guest spot, in case you were wondering.) “Yeah we’ll be drinking and nobody’s gonna stop us” is just one of the lines here that sounds like it was written for Iggy Azalea, not the 56-year-old queen of pop.

There’s a desperation to these songs – you can hear it in the Mike Tyson quote that leads off “Iconic,” the “bitch, get off my pole” interjections on “Holy Water,” the ghastly sub-Erotica-era “S.E.X.,” the Nas verse that interrupts the otherwise swell look back that is “Veni Vidi Vici.” (The lyrics to that last one reference songs and albums throughout her career.) The West-produced “Holy Water” is like a parody of Madonna’s twin obsessions with sex and religion – she commands her man to go down on her, and then asks, “Don’t it taste like holy water?” It’s textbook Madonna, taken just that bit too seriously, and I wanted to like it, but I couldn’t.

I don’t know if it says more about Madonna or me that I’m responding best to the songs on which Madonna seems to have grown up with me. It’s true, though – the best songs on Rebel Heart are the ones that find Madonna comfortable in her own skin, not desperately trying to be relevant. She’s Madonna. She’s always relevant, and the best songs on this overly long, intermittently terrific album are the ones on which she seems to understand that and revel in it.

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On the exact other end of the spectrum sits Laura Marling, the 25-year-old wunderkind who has just released her fifth album. (Yes, fifth. Yes, she’s 25. I’m amazed too.) She’s been nominated for the Mercury Prize three times, most recently for her tremendous fourth record, Once I Was an Eagle. On that album, Marling expanded the range of her dark acoustic folk music, weaving extended suites and winding narratives. It felt like a plateau, like a destination point. And when Marling scrapped a set of similar-sounding songs and set out for Los Angeles to think about what to do next, it didn’t completely surprise me.

The result of all this rumination is Short Movie, a collection of 13 songs about isolation and confusion. For the first time, Marling plays electric guitar here – she eases you in with the Eagle-like “Warrior,” but explodes on “False Hope,” and sporadically throughout the album drifts back in a more plugged-in direction. And while that is an interesting stylistic shift, for the most part, Short Movie sounds like what it is – another pretty wonderful Laura Marling record. If you liked her before, there’s nothing on this well-considered, strong set of songs that will change your mind.

Marling spent six months in L.A. doing everything but music, and that experience is reflected here. “Living here is a game I don’t know how to play,” she sings on “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down,” and songs like “How Can I” detail trips into the desert and long nights in unfamiliar places. When she reaches for falsetto and breaks just shy of the note on the line “I just need a little more time,” on the drone-like “Walk Alone,” she communicates all of her loneliness. Short Movie arranges these laments alongside jauntier numbers like “Strange,” on which Marling sing-speaks a tale of confused affection.

Short Movie feels like Marling’s most personal work – previous records found her spinning fables and allegories, but this one speaks directly more often than not. Even the occasional electric guitar and skipping drum beat can’t dilute Marling’s uncanny emotional impact, and it’s as sharp as it’s ever been here. “Divine” is one of her most contented songs, pivoting on the line “you’re fine, I’m yours and you’re mine,” and you can almost see her smiling as she sings it. In contrast, “Howl” is a dark love song, making full use of the ringing electric tones. “I’ll come get you, hope you haven’t changed your mind, be mine, be mine, be mine…”

For the fifth time, Laura Marling has made a splendid, idiosyncratic, individualistic folk record that marks her as a stunning talent to watch. She’s only a quarter-century old, but she’s already built a body of work that would make many lesser talents green with envy. In many ways, Short Movie is just another great Laura Marling album – not quite as ambitious as her last one, but still worth treasuring. Not for the first time, I hope she has a long and fruitful career ahead of her.

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Of course M week has to conclude with Modest Mouse.

It’s been eight years since we heard from Isaac Brock and his merry men, an eternity for a band hoping to keep momentum going. And Modest Mouse had momentum, coming off of the two biggest records of their career. In 2007, they had Johnny Marr and a substantial hit behind them with “Float On.” Now Marr is out, and Brock and the band apparently spent most of the intervening eight years laying down tracks. Their new album, Strangers to Ourselves, stretches to an hour, and is only the first chapter of a double set.

It’s a big comeback, and while the album has some superb moments, it does succumb to exactly the problem I feared it would. Modest Mouse started as a scrappy, brash indie band with no quality control, and they have evolved into a slicker dance-rock band with no quality control. Strangers to Ourselves sounds like a clearinghouse for everything the band recorded, with little to no thought spared for which songs might not measure up. The fact that the deathly slow and boring title track, which opens things here, is one that should have been binned doesn’t bode well for the record as a whole.

To be fair, there are some tremendous songs here. Single “Lampshades on Fire” is classic modern Modest Mouse, and the extended workout “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” is a live-band explosion worth its six minutes. In between those two, however, is the grating, useless “Pistol,” which reminds me of Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” more than anything else. It kind of goes like that for the whole running time. For every fully realized effort like “Pups to Dust” you get filler like “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole.” I’m a fan of the evolved Modest Mouse – the clean guitars, the space-filled arrangements, the danceable beats, Brock’s reined-in howl. When they make it work, Strangers to Ourselves is very good indeed.

My guess is, though, that the second album from these sessions will be much like the first – inconsistent, full of songs that should have been cut. If there’s a single killer record to be made from these 30 or so songs, it will solidify my belief that Modest Mouse needs an editor more than anything else. In the best songs here, like the carnival-esque “Sugar Boats” and the awesome “Be Brave,” you can hear where all the time and money went. Strangers to Ourselves is a welcome return, and I’m still excited to hear the second half, but an eight-year absence all but demands a strong, solid, state-your-business kind of record, and this isn’t it.

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Next week, hopefully Kendrick and Sufjan. The conversation keeps moving on. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.