“Step into my candy shop,” Madonna beckons at the outset of “Candy Shop,” the opening track on “Hard Candy,” her 11th (and final) album for Warner Bros. Twenty years ago, her come-on would have packed the erotic power of Lauren Bacall wondering if Bogart knew how to whistle; in 2008, the effect is decidedly Mrs. Robinson.
There’s no denying that the album sounds youthful. Producers the Neptunes, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland protege Nate “Danja” Hills give the album a very of-the-minute sheen; the overheated “Incredible” bowls you over like the first lusty phase of a relationship; “Give It To Me” rides along on an insistent synthesizer bounce that could make it a summer favorite.
There’s also a melancholy vulnerability lurking in the songs’ corners and when she lets down her guard (for example, the choral interlude that temporarily takes over “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You”), “Hard Candy” can stand up to her best work.
But for the most part, the album is suffused with a predatory desperation that’s not pretty at any age. Here, it’s as taut and affectless as the Botoxed faces of “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”