The New Madonna Album, ‘Madame X,’ Is a Return to Form for the Queen of Pop

The New Madonna Album, ‘Madame X,’ Is a Return to Form for the Queen of Pop

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It’s been a tough slog for fans of Madonna. In the last 14 years — through the release of Hard CandyMDNA and Rebel Heart — her fans have also been her apologists, desperately countering accusations with each new Madonna record that she’s irrelevant, uninspired, chasing trends instead of setting them.

So thank whatever deity you may or may not believe in — or thank the Cheeto-in-Chief for unleashing her rage and creative juices — because Madame X, her 14th record, while far from perfect, is the best thing she’s done since 2005’s nostalgic Confessions on a Dance Floor.

She opens the new Madonna record Madame X with the bilingual, Latin-inflected “Medellín,” featuring the Colombian reggaeton artist Maluma, and pines to reclaim an innocence she never really had. “I took a pill and had a dream,” she sings. “I went back to my 17th year, allowed myself to be naïve.” It’s a momentary idyll, a respite, lifted up by a frolicsome groove, before a contemporary darkness settles over the 15-track deluxe edition.

“It’s really not about what I want them to know about me,” she has said about this new Madonna record and her fans. “It’s what I want them to know about my observations about life. And that is that life is a paradox. We all need to be more curious, more open-minded, less judgmental, less discriminating, more accepting, more loving, more adventurous.”

In other words, Madonna has community on her mind, only her community includes the entire world now, not just the network of gay bars and underground clubs that gave the budding artist a sense of home while she honed her identity. She’s taking stock, and she’s not crazy about what she sees happening to the neighborhood. She doesn’t need to soapbox (well, she does have her moments!), yet the artist from the ’80s who most embraced the idea that “the personal is the political” is, damn right, less subtle and more direct.

“Everybody knows the damn truth” is both the hook and rallying cry of “God Control,” the most loving (and shape-shifting) disco track she’s done since “Hung Up.”

Her use of Mykki Blanco as Joan of Arc in the video for “Dark Ballet” is an epic genderfuck, challenging assumptions with stealth precision similar to her “Like a Prayer.”

And the aspirational note she goes out on — “I Rise” (revolution, anyone?) — starts with the emotional plea of yet another student affected by the growing number of school shootings that have plagued the United States.

There’s more than enough to admire here, though that doesn’t mean I don’t have my nits about the collection as a whole. “Bitch I’m Loca” should be the last song she puts out with “bitch” in the title — the concept is tired. “Crave” is the type of modern electronic pop that is frankly better served by — oh no she didn’t say that! — Ariana Grande. And the occasional lyric not only falls flat, but lands with an audible thud.

None of which matters one whit. She hasn’t been this experimental in ages — the strange suite of short movements that make up the deconstructed “Dark Ballet” are odd and also thrilling in a pop song; the slow build and angelic backing choir of “God Control” could hurt its chances for mass exposure (though a 12” remix should be mandatory); and the existential quest of “I Don’t Search I Find” is about love, wisdom, peace, betterment, struggle, acceptance simultaneously — a lot for a dance track to carry (though carry it, effortlessly, it does).

The bonus tracks of the deluxe edition are worth the price, and even the tracks I like least sound good in the embrace of their own community.

Honestly, after the dead ends of the last decade or so, it seemed that Madonna’s best artistic days were behind her. And while not flawless, there are songs here that stand with her classics. For all those who doubted her (I’m one of them), Madame X is a riposte and reminder to question your assumptions and expectations, and to never count anyone out. To paraphrase the icon herself: bitch, she’s Madonna.

The new Madonna record Madame X is available today.

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