I listened with intent maybe 4-5 times and except for Dark Ballet (more of which below) really couldn’t find context so in an attempt to get an angle I began with 1983’s Lucky Star and made it all the way to Erotica’s Secret Garden before I had to leave the club. I learned then that I really enjoy Madonna’s vulnerable moments of Papa don’t Preach & Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, but really don’t have any connection with her dominance of the dance floor.
It was around then that Madame X really whispered to me for the first time.
Cha cha cha.
This liquid fantasy opens the bottle with Medellín. A song framed differently in the music to the video. Madonna really has a vision for this music and Medellín was intriguing off the bat, framing the twin tones of latin influence and showtunes. On first listen, and without context Maluma’s interjections at the end of Madonna’s more personal lines sounded sleazy. But in saying that, and after making it as far as Erotica before the dance pop pushed me out, it was refreshing to hear such a fresh and compelling beat. It’s a solid curtain-raiser and sets the stage. The metaphors are intentional.
The album really came to life for me on Dark Ballet. A grand, ludicrous song in 4 parts where I realised that this is the soundtrack to an unwritten show, and all the voices are characters. In that light it really begins to fly when she sings ‘Everybody knows the damn truth…’ on God Control with a muted dynamic range and affectation. This beaten down and angry vocal is given weight with the echo of Like a Prayer’s gospel choir singing about gun control (see what she did there). It’s affecting but then disarmed by gun shots, disco strings keeping the message the same but the framing hella upbeat. The video plays a whole lot more overtly to the record and I prefered the listen than the watch to find my own interpretation.
Mid-album we’re treated to a sweet trio of pure pop. Any barking doubt in Madonna’s continued ability to come up with the goods is firmly put back on the leash in Crave, Crazy, and Come Alive, and each composition is fresh and different.
The borderline spots for me were two of the bigger show songs. Killers Who Are Partying is saved by some sweet relish Portuguese guitar and a solid chorus but I struggled musically with the dissonant verses against the song’s overall harmony. The other moment that screwed my face was Extreme Occident which again works as a show number but not so much as a standalone pop song. Lucky for us Madonna’s touring this album in theatres; I’d love to see these songs in that context.
Living in Lisbon, Madonna isn’t the first artist to head somewhere exotic and find inspiration. Most recently for me, Blur were stuck in Hong Kong for 5 days and managed to cobble together a really decent record of their impressions in 2015’s The Magic Whip but Madame X is layers deeper in Madonna’s hard work and absorption of the things she’s seen and heard. She does justice to her world by sinking into it and expressing herself anew in its voice. In doing so she introduces her audience to exotic new sounds, (and presumably introduces a new audience to herself).
Such is her legacy that it’s difficult to do justice to Madonna’s music in writing and if you go along with her in an honest attempt to find understanding in her work, then she has a warm and wicked knack of seducing you along the way, making any criticism feel like betrayal.
So after a month with Madame X where am I left?
I wonder if Madonna is hiding a little inside Madame X. In wrapping the lines around characters and fantasies it feels like she’s lost some confidence in her own ideas and arguments. It’s audacious sure, and entertaining and affecting at times, but when it’s a character making the argument it’s easier to turn off your empathy once finished. Just like in a good musical. Applaud and go home.
At best her music is an irresistible mix of confidence and vulnerability, of the sacred and the profane, of fuck you and fuck me. These ideas are mixed with smooth multilingual magic through Madame X which starts personal and idyllic and is by turns tragic, cheeky, light, and introspective before in it’s darkest argument ultimately inspiring hope. You can sing and dance to it, and you can also cry to it (as Madonna does in the God Control video ). It’s everything you’d want in a good show.