Today’s POP RESCUE from a fate unknown, is the 2008 album Hard Candy by American pop icon Madonna. However, is this album like a sweet and colourful lollipop, or is it more a half-sucked Werther’s Original? Read on…
This 12 track album opens with the light percussive intro of track Candy Shop. This percussive approach continues throughout this Pharrell Williams contribution (one of many here), and I think that this is clear through it’s simplicity and space to breathe. Madonna’s vocals dance over the top, and she gets hit a higher range for the chorus. It has an almost tribal sound but Madonna’s relaxed vocals including ‘my sugar is raw’ makes this more inviting than defensive.
Next up is the catchy brass riffs of lead single 4 Minutes which features Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on co-vocals. This almost continues on the mood from the last track, but the inclusion of some signature vocalisation of vinyl scratches from Timberlake, set alongside those brass sequences, really helps to give this album interest and weight. The result is a catchy little track, which is simple, but perfectly layered, which gave Madonna a #1 single in the UK chart.
Second single Give It 2 Me is up next, and it picks up the pace with some adorable snare drums, and a bouncy melody from a synth. Madonna’s vocals sound much stronger here and reminiscent of some earlier hits. This track is far more pop that the previous two, and again Pharrell is behind this. This single reached #7 in the UK chart.
Heartbeat follows this with some gently bleepy synths before giving way to another heavily percussive beat. Again, the minimalist style of Pharrell is here, giving Madonna plenty of room to show her vocal power and range. Pharrell seems to have some uncredited vocals here, exclaiming the occasional word. It’s a really nice little gentle song.
The album’s third and final single Miles Away is next, opening with some lightly strummed guitar that reminds me of those Music days, and this is a sound that stays with it. It definitely sounds like a left-over from that album, but with the Justin Timberlake writing credit (and vocal and guitars) it is clearly something more recent. Despite this, the song scraped into the UK Top 40 singles chart, reaching #39.
She’s Not Me is next, and this is highly reminiscent of disco with it’s funky bass, hand-clapped beat, synth string stabs, and occasional electric piano. It’s quite a catchy track made out of Madonna’s jealousy over a former lover’s new partner. After about 2 mins, there’s an almost Beatles styled vocal section ending in an ‘I know I can do it better’ line. Again, Justin gets a little vocal credit with a few words near the end.
This is followed by Incredible which opens with some harder beats and piano. It sounds hurried, and Madonna rattles out her vocals until the verse. At this point it could simply be a Sugababes song. It definitely feels like an eternally album song, and the harder rock guitar turn at about 2m 20s feels ill-placed. By 4mins there’s some annoying and comedy ‘ooh’ male vocals (it’ll be Pharrell and/or Timberlake), but by this time the track is too long and muddled that it’s 6m 20s duration is Incredible that they found enough to draw out and still make it onto the album. One to skip.
Next up is Beat Goes On which for some reason has the greasy mitts of Kanye West all over it, and Pharrell’s. By contrast this track sounds light and cheerful. Not sure what Kanye’s ‘featuring’ credit goes to – there’s some highly-produced male vocals very occasionally, and there sounds like someone is playing the bottles and pans in the background. After 3mins, a rap drops in. This must be him. Despite this, it is a catchy little pop song and probably could have made it as a successful single (without the Kanye bit).
This is followed by Dance 2Night, which brings us back to some funky bass over layers of guitar and disco-inspired sounds. This is a slower end-of-the-evening track, and Madonna sounds good here. Despite the wonderful vocals and music, the song doesn’t really go anywhere though, and could have done with a target to build up to instead it just seems to break up towards the end.
Spanish Lesson is up next, and that’s unmistakeable as the Spanish guitars are laid on thickly here from the first note. There’s a ton of percussion added but not before Madonna has a go at teaching you some Spanish at the beginning. She goes on to tease a treat ‘once you’ve done your homework’. It’s another simple Pharrell song, and not necessarily one that feels at home with Madonna.
Penultimate track Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You follows this and it begins all saccharine with an almost lullaby sequence before dropping in some harder sounds. Madonna’s vocals sound really strong here over the top of the slightly menacing backing track which by now is laden with piano, strings, and bubbling something-or-other synth.
The album closes with Voices which musically sounds like something unearthed in 1992. The lyrics are a bit obscure and disjointed, trying to philosophically ask ‘who is the master, who is the slave’ when singing about walking a dog. Madonna does her best with them, but it’s a bit of a mess.
Over all this album is a good album, and sometimes its simplicity gives it that. Madonna’s vocals are occasionally wasted or misused here, but the singles stand out, alongside tracks like Heartbeat, She’s Not Me, and Beat Goes On, which could have all been single candidates.
The album is a bit disjointed though stylistically, and whilst it is called ‘Hard Candy’, it feels more like a ‘Dairy Box’ or a tin of Roses – some old favourites, some sickly cremes, but with a few annoying toffee pennies that just keep getting stuck.
Kanye, Timbaland, Timberlake, and Pharrell sounds like a great combination, but throw them all together, along with Madonna, and it feels like there were too many managers at the confectioner’s shop and no-one to serve the customers that day.
- POP RESCUE 2020 RATING: 3 / 5
- 2008 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: #1, certified Platinum by the BPI.
- POP RESCUE COST: £1.00 from a Children’s Hospice store.