You Can Dance

Madonna finally returns with a groovier sound on ‘Music’

With each successive album, the press (and record company publicists) have hailed Madonna’s reinventive nature, to the point that her reinvention has become standard. This is certainly the case with her latest release, Music: Like Ray of Light’s cold techno feel, Something to Remember’s Versace couture, Bedtime Stories’ funky sass, and Erotica’s lush PVC skin, the album projects a new style for Madonna, both in music and in image. She poses in high-street cowboy regalia throughout the CD booklet, while Music’s music draws heavily on the Gallic producer’s national affinity for simple, computerized hip-hop drum patterns, old-skool sound effects, and easy grooves (cf. Daft Punk, Dimitri From Paris).

But people forget that Madonna’s style didn’t change that much between 1983 and 1989 except for her haircuts; her albums up until Like a Prayer were virtually interchangeable. After that, though, they became unforgettable—largely because Madonna seized control of the music. Most notably, 1992’s Erotica was a stylistic departure from her earlier releases and a complete success that she has been trying to duplicate for the past eight years—something she has finally achieved on Music. To understand what makes the new record so good, one need only look at the transformation she effected on Erotica. Up to that point, Madonna had been making dance music by following a rock music formula; but with Erotica, she recognized that the dance music she listened to was different from the dance music she was making, and so she sought to marry these two worlds. The album was a milestone because Madonna, a pop artist, boldly embraced “underground” house music, best heard in songs like “Deeper and Deeper” and “Bye Bye Baby.”

In the ensuing years, Madonna followed up with Bedtime Stories, a high point that delved into more dance styles; Something to Remember, a sleepy collection of ballads; and a starring role in the disastrous film Evita. Then, in 1998, she plucked William Orbit out of the electronica remix crowd to produce Ray of Light. Commercially and critically a huge success, the album was nice enough for VH1 but basically weak—lyrically self-centered and lackluster in musical and vocal performance. After collaborating with Orbit on two dreadful songs for soundtracks (“Beautiful Stranger” and “American Pie”), she set her sights on French house music guru Mirwais Ahmadzaï to produce most of Music.

The opening title track (and first single) is a fitting introduction to Madonna’s latest 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 statement of purpose as any for the singer. The change in sound from the Orbit-helmed Ray of Light is immediately evident. That album 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 her 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 Daft Punk comes and goes in the mix. The same is true of “Impressive Instant,” the second song, which pumps its disco bass line over a dirty, phased-out guitar while industrial noises advance and retreat—is that the sound of a drill?—and Ahmadzaï tweaks Madonna’s voice with the “Cher-effect” (a digital vocoder). The resulting foggy dance-hall vibe quickly erases any unease caused by Madonna’s inane words (“I like to rhumba-rhumba-rhumba / Let’s do a samba-samba-samba”). The same vocal effect is used in “Nobody’s Perfect” and makes the robotic ballad more intriguing.

This is not strictly a French house album, as 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 words. When, on Orbit’s tracks, Madonna’s voice is dry and up-front, the weakness of her lyrics is distracting. “It doesn’t pay to be a runaway lover,” she sings here. “It doesn’t pay to give away what you lack / You never get your money back.” True, ridiculous lyrics are an inseparable part of pop music, but Orbit’s techno-by-the-numbers doesn’t fill the void. This 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,” the duo’s contribution to the last Austin Powers movie—so close, in fact, that it’s practically nauseating. The song’s 1960s vibe doesn’t sound as trite as “Beautiful Stranger,” but given that it doesn’t break any new ground, it just sounds out of place with the fresh French sounds of Music. Like “Gone,” the last song on the album and third Orbit collaboration here, “Amazing” lacks the panache of the best Ahmadzaï tracks.

Music’s finest songs 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 Ahmadzaï’s simple drum pattern and Madonna’s crisscrossing 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 oversing the song; instead, her voice matches the warmth of the music. The lyrics are distantly introspective, giving them a memorable and nostalgic 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. But despite the weaker tracks from William Orbit, Music is certainly the most danceable thing she’s done in six 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.

This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene.