It’s been seven years since Madonna released “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” her last great album and what could have been a winning blueprint for the remaining chapters of her career. The beats were bubbly, the melodies were colorful and the good times were undeniable. After decades of using pop music to explore and explode America’s sexual taboos, the queen of clubland sounded like she wanted to spend the twilight of her reign having fun.
Her new album, “MDNA,” feels more like “Tears in a Nightclub Bathroom” — a joyless collection of impersonal dance tracks spiked with very personal lyrics that ruminate on her 2008 divorce from director Guy Ritchie.
Madonna’s music has never invited us into the gnarly nooks of her personal life, and “MDNA” illustrates why. She’s lousy at it. “I tried to be a good girl / I tried to be your wife,” she sings on “I Don’t Give A,” a kiss-off that feels paper-thin and cardboard-stiff. “Diminished myself and I swallowed my light.”
A good girl? It’s vexing to hear Madge, 53, referring to herself as a child throughout “MDNA.”
“All the boys and girls want to be like us tonight,” she declares on “I’m a Sinner.”
“Don’t play the stupid game, ’cause I’m a different kind of girl,” she warns on “Gimme All Your Luvin’,” the peppy trifle she performed at the Super Bowl last month.
Why Madonna isn’t embracing her post-Gaga matriarch status is puzzling. This woman built her career pushing envelopes, but now she seems eager to fit in with her followers and win over younger fans. Instead of gracing old-media magazine covers, she’s launching press campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. And instead of pushing pop’s moral or sonic boundaries, she’s making music that sounds clumsy and juvenile.
Her passions feel childish on “Superstar,” a dollop of sonic Cool Whip that might as well have been written for the latest tweener to roll off the Disney Channel production line. “I’m your biggest fan, it’s true,” Madonna sings. “Hopelessly attracted to you / You can have the password to my phone.” The song takes on the tone of a fifth-grade history report when she compares her “super-duper star” with Al Capone, Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln — “ ’cause you fight for what’s right.”
Her anger feels puerile, too. On “Gang Bang,” she fantasizes about putting a bullet in her lover — and then offing him for a second time in the afterlife. “How could I move on with my life if you didn’t die for me, baby?” she asks over toad-croak bass lines that resemble dubstep.
Are we having fun yet?
Her collaborators don’t help. A fleet of producers, including William Orbit, Martin Solveig and Benny Benassi, dresses these scenes in unwelcoming electronic tones — the synths on “Girl Gone Wild” feel cold and soggy, while the ascending melodies of “Addicted” are presented in timbres that bristle instead of lift. Cameos by M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj sound like paychecks being cashed.
At times, Madonna hints at her glorious yesteryears by referencing the strict Catholic upbringing she turned inside out with her defining 1989 hit, “Like a Prayer.” But here, her references to the church are graceless gestures. “I’m a Sinner” includes nursery-rhyme-ish prattle about the crucifixion, Thomas Aquinas and Saint Sebastian, and the album kicks off with Madonna reciting the act of contrition — as if preemptively atoning for the dozen songs we’re about to sit through.
There’s one song that doesn’t require an apology: “Love Spent,” a forward-thinking tune that blends an Abba sample, a banjo and a heartbreaking refrain. “I want you to hold me in your arms like you hold your money,” Madonna sings. “Hold me in your arms until there’s nothing left.”
It’s a smart metaphor for a bankrupt romance, but it also underscores the dilemma of “MDNA.” There’s not much to hold onto.