Defiantly eccentric in places, Madonna’s latest – partially inspired by her move to Lisbon – offers enough Rays of Light to shine
The first signs weren’t entirely encouraging. Madonna’s 14th album was introduced by Medellin, a song seemingly so slight it was less notable for its musical repositioning than for its video’s toe job, given to collaborator and Colombian reggaetan star Maluma. Soon afterwards, her Eurovision Song Contest performance proved so off-key her vocals were replaced overnight before its official YouTube appearance.
But Madonna’s prepared for flak: Medellin’s video finds her whispering, “Madame X loves to dance because you can’t hit a moving target”, and the song ultimately creeps beneath the skin. Furthermore, as aspirational closer I Rise melodramatically reminds us, she’s “died a thousand times/ Managed to survive”.
Madame X, fortunately, is punctuated by enough indelible moments that she’ll continue to endure. Strings float over I Don’t Search, I Find’s descending bassline until a phat house groove resurrects her Justify My Love murmur, and Dark Ballet leaps from delicate piano arpeggios to a Switched On Bach take on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Dance Of The Mirlitons — bizarrely reminiscent of Frank Muir’s Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut(case) ads — before climaxing with breathing so heavy it’s almost wheezing from the exertion.
Equally eccentric is God Control, its nasal, Auto-Tuned vocal interrupted by the Tiffin Children’s Chorus, before strings, a spoken interlude and gunshots deliver disco-worthy daft lyrics like “Each new birth, it gives some hope/ That’s why I don’t smoke that dope”. The track’s still only halfway through, and its insanity is matched by Batuka, on which the chain gang chants of Portugal’s Batukadeiras Orchestra are paired with explosive drums and subterranean bass.
When she parts from producer Mirwais, however, things are less successful. On the anonymous, Diplo-produced Future, Quavo’s intermission is no healthier for the song than a cigarette break. Killers Who Are Partying’s slow handclaps demand less cringe-inducing lyrics than “I’ll be Islam if Islam is hated/ I’ll be Israel if they’re incarcerated”. Crave, too, is musically prosaic, while Crazy’s distinguished only by its use of accordion and Bitch I’m Loco by a puerile exchange between Maluma (“Where do you want me to put this?”) and Madonna (“You can put it inside”).
Nonetheless, though Madonna’s relocation to Lisbon hasn’t provoked the reinvention new outfits might suggest, it’s inspired some of her most adventurous — and, at times, off the wall — work in years. I Rise may suggest “There’s nothing you can do to me that hasn’t been done”, but Madame X confirms there’s plenty she can do that she’s still not done. Wyndham Wallace
3.5 out of 5 stars