The rollout to Madonna’s 14th studio album, Madame X, has sometimes felt long and arduous. Its eventual lead single ‘Medellín’ was greeted warmly by most and sounded both nostalgic of Madonna’s past and musically of the moment.
Subsequent performances on the Eurovision Song Contest and the Billboard Awards both disappointed for different reasons. Four more new songs followed in rapid succession and ranged from the banal to the pleasant enough to try-hard art-pop. It was beginning to feel like more of the same from the world’s best pop star who had mainly failed to deliver over the last decade.
It comes then as a surprise, and somewhat of a relief, that some of the best and most thoughtful work Madonna has produced since her last critically acclaimed and commercially successful Confessions on a Dance Floor in 2005 makes up a large part of Madame X.
The Colombian backbeat of the Maluma-featuring ‘Medellín’ might be indicative of a more reflective Madonna (‘I went back to my 17th year’) set against a sonic update of ‘La Isla Bonita’ but it’s also a complete red herring if you enter Madame X expecting more of the same. Although Maluma and Brazilian star Anitta reconnect somewhat unnecessarily with contemporary Latin pop later into the album, it’s Madonna’s update of her own sound and the influence of the local music scene in Lisbon that bring this record to scorching life.
‘God Control’s’ embittered first verse sounds as though Madonna is literally singing through gritted teeth, and for good reason. ‘Everybody knows they don’t have a chance to get a decent job and have a normal life’ – it’s a surprise to hear lyrics that are so relatable and the opposite of the more expected, positive thinking sheen that informs much of the singer’s work. Musically this is as 70s disco as Madonna has ever been and includes a choir, silvery strings, a genuinely nutty rap and extreme vocoders that are intentional as opposed to enhancing.
Proceeding this is the three-act, mini prog-rock experiment ‘Dark Ballet’ which is admirable in its disregard for contemporary and established pop structures – and Madame X is a pop record quite definitely – but with its nasal and twangy vocals over egging the word ‘burn’, naff synth interpretation of the Nutcracker Suite and crackling flames SFX, it ends up being an over-indulgent mess.
It is maybe indicative of Madonna’s reaction of being sent to song-writing camp by her manger for 2015’s Rebel Heart sessions. A fuck-you to anyone who thinks that this type of transient, focus group approach to commercial music-making would yield greater results for an artist whose intimate and intense album collaborations with producers such as William Orbit, Stuart Price, Nile Rogers and Mirwais have resulted in some of the most influential, exciting and brilliant pop albums of the past 35 years.
It is Mirwais who produces the edgier, more obviously world-music incorporating tracks on Madame X, half of the album, and who Madonna trusts enough to allow her to be occasionally nostalgic, and also at her most idiosyncratic.
‘Killers Who Are Partying’, not a party track and the title of which is never uttered even partially, is extraordinary. Opening herself up to ridicule with lyrics that could be written by Edina Monsoon (‘I’ll be Native Indian if the Indian is taken’), this is nevertheless a haunting and beautifully sung contemporary fado, clearly influenced from sessions experienced in Lisbon’s late-night Fado Houses which Madonna has spoken of since moving there three years ago.
Mirwais does a great thing mid-song where he distorts a more traditional synth sound to the point where the mood become tangibly woozy and off-balance, whilst Madonna grounds the song with her clear-headed and close-up vocal. Their artistic instincts around one another are boundary pushing and a perfect, spiky fit for an artist who more recently has lost some confidence in her surroundings.
‘Extreme Occident’ starts with what sounds like a warped mandolin and erupts with tabla drums midway and the close of the African drummed ‘Batuka’ fades out with just a mournful and riddled violin. Neither of these tracks compare to anything so far heard within Madonna’s intimidating and awe-inspiring discography.
‘I Don’t Search I Find’ is Madonna at her most nostalgic with a return to the ballroom stabbed house of ‘Vogue’ and ‘Rescue Me’.
At the album’s centre are a trio of songs, ‘Crave’, ‘Crazy’ and ‘Come Alive’, that represent some of the warmest and most emotional music of Madonna’s career. All three are mid-tempo tracks with the Mike Dean-produced and Swae Lee-featuring ‘Crave’ being the most radio friendly with trap beats and percussion and Madonna playing pronouncing ‘come’ as ‘comme’.
‘Come Alive’ is so joyful and contrary in the way that it swings from the abrasive and dominant lyrics of its verse to the chorus’ irresistible invitation to ‘come alive!’
Some of the weakest songs were heard before Madame X was released and although within the context of its full release ‘Future’ makes more sense immediately following the warnings of the mighty ‘God Control’, both ‘Rise’ and ‘Dark Ballet’ still fail to hit their intended targets.
It is also true to say that Madonna has with this record re-engaged with the most carefree, divisive and experimental part of herself and that the subsequent results are compelling and mainly successful and sound little like anything else currently out there.
It is pointless to expect a return to form. Madonna’s form has clearly shifted and what exactly would that sound like now? Madame X seems instead to have given the star permission and a new opportunity to be the centre of her own fantastical world again, one where she decides the rules and shuts out the usual, re-occurring detractors. And for that, we should be grateful.