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New Sounds from an Old Flame
By Ryan Brunt
I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that Madonna is no stranger to experimentation. From her earliest days as the 80s premier pop firebrand to her more recent endeavors, Madonna has never been one to rely on old sounds or approaches. Her most recent album, Madame X, is no exception. It’s a brash, ambitious project practically overflowing with ideas. And although some of these ideas work better than others, Madonna still deserves praise for refusing to rest on her numerous and well-deserved laurels.
Madame X largely finds Madonna operating in two wildly different modes. We’re introduced to the first on the album’s opening track and lead single, “Medellin.” The song is the sound of Madonna adapting to 2019’s new pop landscape, collaborating with Colombian singer Maluma on a fun, reggaeton- influenced dance tune. About half of the album’s songs proceed in that vein, and it sounds good; Madonna brings her own unique approach to a new style of music, without sounding too much like an out of touch wave-rider. But for Madonna, that would be too straightforward of a project; the rest of the album shows her actively pushing her sound in strange and risky directions.
That new direction is showcased on the second song, “Dark Ballet.” It opens minimal; with dark, almost gothic piano the only accompaniment for Madonna’s heavily auto-tuned voice. But halfway through, the song switches gears abruptly. A long, trailing piano run fades into what can only be described as robotic cabaret music, with a heavily processed voice singing over a classical melody. The next song “God Control” continues that ambitious and off kilter structure- shifting from dark choirs to upbeat symphonic pop over its six-minute run time. These more experimental moments are where it feels like Madonna really pushed herself, and as a result they are the most engaging songs on the album.
Madame X is not an easy album, and it’s not an album without flaws. Would it benefit from substantial editing? Yes. Do its more conceptual, science fiction qualities owe a lot to Janelle Monae’s Archandroid trilogy? It sure sounds like it. But it is an interesting album, if nothing else; and an artist like Madonna managing to sound fresh after such a long career is no small feat.
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