There’s nothing more worrisome than the idea of a tribute album, particularly for a mega-star like Madonna, whose own back catalog serves as a patchwork tribute to the past. But Through the Wilderness: A Tribute to Madonna, stacks up to be better than I thought it would. In patches, anyway.
Part benefit for Madonna’s Raising Malawi Organization (25 percent of all sales go directly to the charity), part excuse to reinvent some of the queen of reinvention’s classics, Through the Wilderness is, if nothing else, testament to the notion that Madonna tends to inspire people from all walks of life — in this case, indie artists. And so Wilderness begins with Jonathan Wilson’s piano-kissed “La Isla Bonita,” where the chorus resounds in waves of reverb against a very ’70s lead guitar. But it’s Jeremy Jay who gets the party started right with his post-punk new-wave take on “Into the Groove,” complete with spaced-out synth noises and echoing spoken verses. In the same vein, Ariel Pink’s “Everybody” is decked out in cheap keyboards and programmed drums, featuring backing vocals by Julia Holter (who sounds uncannily like Madonna here).
And although much of this disc is a rousing good time, not all can match the power of the pop queen’s songs, and the missteps come in the form of Madonna’s ballads, a long-running strength of Madge’s. Winter Flowers’ take on “Live to Tell” fails to match the open-wound rawness of the original, and Giant Drag’s take on “Oh, Father,” while earnest in its efforts, just doesn’t generate the power of Madonna’s vulnerable vocal and arrangement. Elsewhere, the Chapin Sisters offer up a reworking of “Borderline” that’s too dull for a song once so full of ’80s pep, and Alexandra Hope’s acoustic retelling of “Lucky Star” adds nothing new to the track worth earning a slot on this tribute album.
Having said that, the remainder of Wilderness gels well, much to the credit of Madonna, who has been the writer/co-writer of her material from the beginning. If nothing else, Through the Wilderness reminds that these can withstand some reinventing no matter how minimal or lo-fi the arrangement, because the songs themselves are strong. But I guess that’s something we’ve known all along.