Meet Madame X
Madame X is many things, as her bio reads. She is a cha-cha instructor, a saint and a prostitute, a professor and a cabaret singer…the list goes on as Madonna, she behind the mask, details the various guises of the mysterious Madame. The Queen of Pop’s 14th record thankfully doesn’t stick too tightly to its overarching concept; you won’t find out too much about Madame X in the songs but there is plenty to learn about Madonna herself as she offers a peek behind the
mask studded eye-patch.
Keen to show off how much ‘Hard Candy’s ‘Spanish Lesson’ has taught her, the Latin flair holds much of the record together as it serves as a golden thread throughout the lead single ‘Medellin’ and later collaborations ‘Bitch I’m Loca’ and ‘Faz Gostoso’ – the latter proving the most confident foray into the style alongside Brazilian icon Anitta. Slower moments prove just as vital with the hypnotic deluxe edition track ‘Extreme Occident’ and fitting closer ‘I Rise’ which makes a lot more sense in the context of the record than it did as a standalone single. Preceding it is the arresting ‘Looking for Mercy’ swelling with cinematic strings and a chant-along chorus, proving itself as one of the strongest ballads Madonna has put out in years.
Where ‘Madame X’ really excels though is when it gets experimental and downright bonkers. ‘God Control’ demands repeated listens despite its 6-minute length, shifting from angsty mid-tempo to funky disco and finishing off with some choral flourishes. Album highlight and recent single ‘Dark Ballet’ follows a similar dysfunctional approach in both structure and genre, flitting from a downbeat electro pulse to a frantic classical refrain. It may sound clunky and odd to some, but it’s the most daring Madonna has sounded in a long time.
‘Madame X’ isn’t without its flaws however; ‘I Don’t Search I Find’ doesn’t unfold much over its four minutes despite promising much with its 90s string section and ‘Future’ seems to be Madge’s most divisive track in a long time (making ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ seem critically acclaimed in comparison). Elsewhere, ‘Batuka’ boasts some of the best production on the record, but the repetitive vocal lines aren’t helped by Madonna’s monotonous delivery. Regardless, the records lowlights are easy to overlook when taken in the context of the record in its entirety – taking as many risks as she has here is bound to result in a couple of misfires.
These risks are exactly why ‘Madame X’ is such a joy to listen to. ‘Rebel Heart’ had a wealth of solid pop songs, though even at its most inventive (‘Iconic’, ‘Devil Pray’) it had its sights geared directly to the masses, something that could never be said of some of the tracks here. It isn’t all about being odd though, there is plenty of material to placate pop purists too (‘Come Alive’, ‘Crazy’). We aren’t talking ‘Ray of Light’ level masterpiece here but ‘Madame X’ is a bold stride forward into new sounds and ideas – forty years in the biz and still reinventing.