Madonna, Music (Warner Bros.)

Boy, was I wrong.

The opening title track and first single is a fitting introduction to Madonna’s “new” sound: its off-kilter pulses and vocoder-sung refrain announce Madonna as a woman who, at 42, isn’t ready to stop dancing. It’s groovier than anything she’s done since Bedtime Stories and is as suitable a raison d’etre as any for the singer. The change in sound from the Orbit-helmed Ray of Light is immediate. Ray of Light was English techno: all clean synthetics (even the guitars were emasculated, clean and crisp) and easy, constant drum patterns (the bass drum on the downbeat, high-hat on the upbeat). Madonna’s lyrical themes even reflected the album’s English-ness being slightly gothic, heavily sappy (dealing obviously with Madonna’s new child) and all too safe.

In “Music,” the sound is lumpy and strange: bass sounds pulse and jump from speaker to speaker, the drums stop and turn in the middle of the song, and the phased out, underwater sound effect practically patented by French dance duo Daft Punk comes and goes. The same goes for “Impressive Instant,” the second song, which pumps its disco bass line over a dirty, phased out guitar while industrial noises come and go (is that a drill?) and producer Mirwais Ahmadzai tweaks Madonna’s voice with the “Cher-effect” (a digital vocoder). This produces a foggy dance-hall vibe which quickly erases any unease caused by Madonna’s words (“I like to rhumba-rhumba-rhumba / Let’s do a samba-samba-samba”).

This is not strictly a French house album, Orbit returns on three of Music’s tracks, which are noticeably less cool. Here, his all-too-lightweight production is complemented by Madonna’s most childish lyrics. “Runaway Lover” trades on the same few elements that won over the adult contempo crowd on Ray of Light: mildly quick techno drum pattern, lots of synthetic atmosphere, silly lyrics. “Runaway Lover” follows the Mirwais-produced “Impressive Instant” and feels all the more hollow for it. When, in Orbit’s tracks, Madonna’s voice is dry and up-front, the weakness of her lyrics distracts the listener (“It doesn’t pay to be a Runaway Lover / It doesn’t pay to give away what you lack, you never get your money back”). Ridiculous lyrics are an inseparable part of pop music, but here, Orbit’s techno-by-the-numbers music doesn’t fill the void left by weak words. The track could be any one of a dozen on a “Best of Dance & Trance” CD. Another Orbit track, “Amazing,” sounds far too close to “Beautiful Stranger” (their contribution to the last Austin Powers movie). So close, in fact, it’s practically nauseating. Its 1960s vibe doesn’t sound as trite as “Beautiful Stranger,” but in that it doesn’t break any new ground for Madonna, it just sounds out-of-place with the fresh Frog sounds of Music. Like “Gone,” the last song on the album and third Orbit collaboration here, “Amazing” lacks the panache of the best Mirwais tracks.

Music’s finest tracks are the laid-back grooves of “Don’t Tell Me” and “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” A spliced-up acoustic guitar rolls through “Don’t Tell Me” and, along with Mirwais’ simple drum pattern and Madonna’s criss-crossing vocals, propels the song to its lovely string-sampled coda. “What It Feels Like for a Girl” succeeds on every account where songs like “Candy Perfume Girl” from Ray of Light faltered. Madonna doesn’t over-sing the song; instead, her voice matches the warmth of the music. The lyrics are distantly introspective, giving them a memorable and nostaligic feel. The song is among the best Madonna has ever done.

In the wake of uneven musical releases, two children, and several bad movies, it was beginning to look like Madonna might not ever again live up to her reputation. Despite the weaker tracks from William Orbit, Music is certainly the most danceable thing she’s done in 6 years. And because of its return to the root of what makes Madonna vital (a pop singer making fresh dance music), Music is an overwhelming success.