Maverick / Warner Bros.
By: Eric G.
She’s already proven that she can wrap herself in (almost) any package and the public will eat it up. Madonna plays the press better than any pop star, actor, or politician. She’s claimed from the beginning that all she’s ever really wanted is respect for her music. Sad story, huh? She knows it would be pointless to try to compete sexually with Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez because she invented the whole game- she has nothing to prove sexually or commercially, so what’s left for her to do but build up some credibility? Granted, it’s not the normal path of a pop star, but Madonna is anything but a normal pop star. Is she truly responsible for her myriad musical reinventions? Is she conniving and clever or just rich and lucky? Does it really matter as long as the tunes are good…?
For her eighth proper album Madonna once again enlists top-notch producers to sculpt her latest stab at uber-hipness in the electronic dance scene into a palpable, commercial force. The kickoff song, which is also the first single and the title track is by far the most musically adventurous thing she’s ever released, taking obvious cues from the French club sounds of outfits like Daft Punk. Her lyrics are typically insipid and ineffectual. My goal with Madonna’s lyrics has always just been to try not to notice them, but when they’re really bad (and high in the mix) it’s hard to turn a blind eye. Does everyone over sixteen know not to rhyme “heart” with “apart” but Madonna? Music, like every Madonna record, is flawed; it’s like the experimental distant cousin to Ray Of Light’s dour electronic sheen, but it drudges up enough hooks, emotion, and deviant fun to pass muster and maybe even rank as one of her best.
After re-establishing herself as the preeminent disco tramp on “Music” (which, after repeated listenings, just might be her best single ever), Madonna delves back into the darker edge that she and William Orbit explored on Ray Of Light. Music has standout songs that are certainly edgier than those on Ray Of Light, but it lacks the latter’s thematic and musical flow. The arsenal of producers gives the record a herky-jerky and random feel much like Madonna’s early records, which had strong hit singles but an equal amount of filler. “Impressive Instant” pulses with an octave-chasing bass line and a retro-techno beat. Mirwais Ahmadzai swarms Madonna with a series of distorted noises, watery bleeps, and syncopated patter. “Runaway Lover” is undeniably infectious. Madonna counters the driving beat with a slightly withdrawn vocal line. Orbit makes it sound like an aggressive Everything But The Girl song.
You know how when you hear Madonna talk she slips in and out of that fake, practiced, “proper” accent? Well, the same thing happens with her singing voice. The years of vocal training ruined her girlish charm (whore-ish charm is more like it), but sometimes she slips out of that awful, forced vibrato, allowing the real Madonna (if there is such a thing anymore) to shine through. Her behind-the-scenes musical masterminds come up with plenty of ways to dilute her vocals, but that, more often than not, ends up sounding cheesy and anachronistic. Take, for example, “Nobody’s Perfect”, which foolishly rehashes Cher’s “Believe”-vocoder technique and proceeds to run it into the ground. At least Cher had the common decency to use it sparingly.
Every misstep on Music is followed by a stroke of genius, though. “Don’t Tell Me” manages to evoke vintage Madonna charm while pushing the experimental envelope. A folky acoustic riff stutters and skips deliberately, catching you off guard until the hip-hop beat kicks in. The faux-strings give it an atmospheric polish. It’s an amazing song- clearly the album’s highlight. “What It Feels Like For A Girl” will not only remind the current crop of teen queens where it all started but also what a proper pop ballad sounds like. Past forty Madonna can still sound like a hurt little girl- even better than the real thing.
“Paradise (Not For Me)” is one of those songs that you just can’t help but notice how bad the lyrics are. It’s an indulgent ramble, wherein Madonna shows her ass lyrically, and, I promise, you don’t want to see it: “I was so blind/I could not see/your paradise is not for me.” The worst part is that Madonna for some reason decides to sing like she’s really, really thirsty and choking for air. The music is kind of eerie and moody and almost salvages Madonna’s ill-advised attempt at melodrama but ends up falling flat. Madonna has never really ended an album well. Remember “Love Makes The Whole World Go Round?” Or how about “Secret Garden?” Me neither. “Gone” is a forgettable ballad with more bad lyrics. Not even laser effects can save it from its open-faced cheesiness.
Music is a mass of cliches, bandwagon-hoppings, and contradictions, but it’s got attitude and an edge and shows that Madonna hasn’t completely put her head in the toilet. Not yet at least. If I ever hear “American Pie” again, though, I might change my mind…