Rejoice, Madonna fans: She’s still blazing trails. By titling a song “Extreme Occident,” she’s become the first pop behemoth to use this anachronistic descriptor for a Westerner.
And it’s not a bad song either! One of the many reassurances Madame X offers is that, for all the ways she’s taught us how the pop song can vaporize our received ideas about sex, Catholicism, and motherhood, Madonna remains a dork. She’s the big sister who stumbles on interesting words and figures out how to write songs around them. A syncretic talent till the death, Madonna shares travel notes, invites Swae Lee, Quavo, and Maluma along for a car ride to Lisbon, and proffers theories about gun control along the way. Her 14th studio album is her most satisfying since 2005’s long-ago-and-far-away Confessions on a Dance Floor. Thank her curiosity.
On first listen this wouldn’t seem so. The so-called traditional songs—the on-brand title “I Don’t Search I Find,” the bathos of “Looking for Mercy,” the stu-stu-stuttered Portuguese on “Crazy”—are strong enough that she could’ve kept things simple and gotten a high five from critics for Getting Back to Basics. Return to that Quavo track, “Future,” which unfurls as listeners might expect, or “Crave,” whose fado-indebted melody allows Swae to float on a trap beat away from an on-the-prowl Madonna. These are OK to pretty good songs, recorded, no doubt, because she’s canny enough to know how Spotify (to use a gruesome verb) maximizes streams across artist platforms. But she also no doubt wanted to know how her fascination with non-American musical textures and her impatient lustrous melancholy mesh with younger talents.
Similarly, check those production credits. Diplo you know, and Mike Dean (Travis Scott, 2 Chainz), fine, especially after the frantic attempts to contemporize herself on MDNA (2012) and the better Rebel Heart (2015). But Music’s Mirwais Ahmandzai? Yet he assembled Madame X’s most intricate exoskeletons. Teasing us with piano and one of her more ruminative recent sets of lyrics, “God Control” shifts into “Disco Inferno” turf complete with slap bass and a bubble-headed rap that makes “the double shot-tee" of "soy latte” bit in “American Life” sound like Rakim. The strings go psycho while Madonna, who has struggled with how to mechanize her post-Evita vocal control so that she doesn’t sound like she’s squeezing her larynx with tweezers, shouts, “It’s a new kind of democracy/God and pornography”—damn, girl, express yourself. All this, and the Tiffin Children’s Choir too. And we’re only on the third track.
Fascinated with textures that resonate beyond her Manhattan dance origins yet rarely ossify into occidental (thanks, Maddie!) tourism, Madonna schlocks up experiments with batuque (“Batuka”) and a cover of “Faz Gostoso” (joined by Annita) as if they’re weathered, sturdy branches in her musical tree. “Dark Ballet,” the most successful of these experiments in Fourth World possible musics, applies the chirruped vocal approach familiar to “Don’t Tell Me” aficionados to the album’s most batshit synthesis: rippling piano trills indebted to Michael Nyman, recitative vaguely calling shit on the Supreme Court, and a synth bass that would knock Donald Trump’s smartphone out of his hands. In a welcome callback to her days as an MTV semiotician, the video starring Mykkie Blanco as Joan of Arc would make Carl Dreyer blush.
If MDNA and 2008’s crusty Justin-and-Timbo-riding Hard Candy represented flailing attempts to grapple with a shifting marketplace, Madame X occupies its own space. No way in hell will radio play her—although with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” weirding things up, why not? Ambitious in its muddle, versatile by design, a product of an incubation both fruitful and debilitating for a pop polymath, Madame X is deluxe semi-pop: the Madonna equivalent of early-’00s Pearl Jam. Not giving a fuck has liberated her as it did them—would someone who did come up with an English-allergic title like “Killers Who Are Partying”? If she keeps recording streaming experiences like this, she might turn into the world’s biggest cult artist.