Madame X is the rare album from a veteran artist that puts earlier records in a different light. Ever since the 1980s, the conventional wisdom about Madonna claimed she brought trends from the musical underground for the purpose of pop hits, but Madame X — a defiantly dense album that has little to do with pop, at least in the standard American sense — emphasizes the artistic instincts behind these moves. The shift in perception stems from Madonna embracing a world outside of the United States. While she’s been an international superstar since the dawn of her career, Madonna relocated to Lisbon, Portugal in 2017, a move that occurred two years after Rebel Heart — an ambitious record balanced between revivals of old styles and new sounds — failed to burn up any Billboard chart outside of Dance singles. These two developments fuel Madame X, an album that treats America as a secondary concern at best. Madonna may address the political and social unrest that’s swept across the globe during the latter years of the 2010s, but her commentary is purposely broad. Perhaps Madonna errs on the side of being a little bit too broad — on “Killers Who Are Partying,” she paints herself as a martyr for every oppressed voice in the world — yet this instinct to look outside of her experience leads her to ground Madame X in various strains of Latinx sounds, trap, and art-pop, music that not only doesn’t sound much like the American pop charts in 2019, but requires focused attention in a manner that makes the songs not especially friendly to playlisting.
Madame X has its share of colorful neo-disco numbers and shimmering chill-out tracks, but they’re painted in dark hues, and they’re surrounded by songs so closely cloistered, they can play like mini-suites. Case in point is “Dark Ballet,” an ominous number that descends into a sinister, robotic rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes” section from The Nutcracker — an allusion that recalls not the future, but the dystopian horror show of A Clockwork Orange. Such darkness hangs heavy over Madame X, surfacing fiercely in the clenched-mouth phrasing on “God Control,” but present even on the bobbing reggae of “Future.” The murk does lift on occasion — “Come Alive” gains levity from its clustered polyrhythms — but the somber tenor when combined with fearless exploration does mean Madame X can be demanding listening. The rhythms are immediate, but the songs aren’t, nor are the opaque productions. While this thick, heady confluence of cultures and sounds may demand concentration, Madame X not only amply rewards such close listening, but its daring embrace of the world outside the U.S. underscores how Madonna has been an advocate and ally for left-of-mainstream sounds and ideas throughout her career.
4 out of 5 stars