Madonna’s latest persona ‘Madame X’ borrows her name from the historical figure Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau: a socialite and occasional muse who scandalised genteel French society when she bared naked flesh – her entire shoulder, would you believe it – in a portrait. And while Madge’s own eye-patch wearing interpretation prefers taking a more enterprising approach to the current job market (Madame X is a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, and a saint many among other things) it’s a fitting moniker for a record that restlessly explores all sides of contemporary pop at full divisive pelt: visiting Latin pop, all-out Eurotrash, gloomily percussive trap, NYC disco, house, and reggaeton.
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During its most reckless moments, ‘Madame X’ is bold, bizarre, and unlike anything Madonna has ever done before. The frantic ‘Dark Ballet’ harnesses gloomily spun strings and robotic overlord vocals; it’s as villainous and foreboding as ‘Ray of Light’s darkest moments, or her ‘Die Another Day’ Bond theme. Then, quite out of nowhere, an extended piano interlude morphs into a mangled, glitching excerpt of ‘Dance of the Reed Pipes’ from Tchaikovsky’s ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ – it’s brilliant, overblown ridiculousness. “I want to tell you about love…. and loneliness,” Madonna husks dramatically.
Touching heavily on both these things, ‘Madame X’ explores the state of the world (spoiler: it’s not doing great) at large – as well as Madonna’s place within it – from her new base in Lisbon. ‘Madame X’ isn’t flawless in its vision: at times, Madonna’s attempts to lead the future revolution can come off as ham-fisted. ‘Killers Who Are Partying’ features some absolute clanging missteps: booming lines like “I’ll be Islam if Islam is hated” and “I’ll be Native Indian if the Indian has been taken” seem like tone-deaf expressions of solidarity, especially from a wealthy white woman who seems to be planting herself at the centre of multiple minority narratives. And moments like ‘I Rise’s rehashed quote from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre – “Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you” – can border on inspirational fridge magnet territory, too broad to establish real connection.
‘Madame X’ is a far more interesting prospect when the focus moves back onto Madonna herself. ‘Crazy’ – produced by Jason Evigan and Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean – is a self-referential accordion bop: “I bend my knees for you like a prayer,” she sings, pointedly name-checking her 1989 album, and flipping from the original’s religious innuendo, towards doomed, dead-end infatuation “oh god, look at me now”. Elsewhere, the rhythmic whisper of “cha cha cha” on opener and lead single ‘Medellín’ recalls ‘Hard Candy’s ‘Give It 2 Me’.
‘Bitch I’m Loca’, meanwhile, is the sort of swaggering anthem that campy Disney villain Ursula might belt out from the depths: Maluma (who also appears on lead single ‘Medellín’) the ideal sidekick. “Where do you want me to put this?” he drawls with a comedy wink. “You can put it inside” she replies. It’s like Madonna’s diva sketch at the end of ‘Act Of Contrition’ turned Carry On… Madame X. Her cover of ‘Faz Gostoso’ – originally by Brazilian pop star Blaya – is equally great fun. And the House-inflected standout ‘I Don’t Search I Find’ – bringing to mind Shep Pettibone’s production on ‘Vogue’, and repurposing a quote from Pablo Picasso for its title – is just as playful. “Finally, enough love,” Madonna announces.
Throughout her 40-year career, outrage has always tailed Madonna closely; a point which is referenced on the likes of ‘Extreme Occident’ and the vulnerable admissions of ‘Looking For Mercy’ (“flawed by design, please sympathise,” she pleads) . “People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m not pretty enough, I don’t sing well enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m not married enough, and now it’s that I’m not young enough,” Madonna recently told Vogue,
In reality, if age wasn’t the chosen topic of the moment, the star would be “too much” of something – anything – else: too sexual, too attention-seeking, too weird, too controversial, too outspoken, too unwilling to disappear quietly into the good night. Instead, Madonna will do no such thing, happiest dancing said night away to the beat of her own creative drum.
For the first time since ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’, perhaps, there’s a glint in Madonna’s eye; her visible, un-eyepatched one, at least. Sonically restless, ‘Madame X’ doesn’t imitate current pop trends as much as it mangles them into new shapes. A record that grapples with being “just way too much”, ultimately, it refuses to tone things down.