Back into the groove
On her new album, Madonna ditches the deep thoughts and rediscovers her dance-floor roots
Madonna's new album is called ''Confessions on a Dance Floor," but the title is only half right. Decadent and remote, pulsing with excellent technology and largely devoid of ideas, the collection offers little in the way of revelation, and frankly it's a big relief. After the clunky social commentary, hollow personal meditations, and embarrassing raps on 2003's ''American Life," the experience of Madonna in her natural habitat -- pitch-shifted, synth-saturated, and writhing in clubland -- is pure pleasure.
Pressed to maintain the artist's reputation for reinvention, flacks are floating a spanking new concept -- Future Disco -- for Madonna's project. But a wholesale return to one's roots hardly qualifies as fresh, let alone forward-thinking, no matter how young the DJ or deft the remix wizard. Stuart Price, a.k.a. Les Rythmes Digitales and Jacques Le Cont, co-wrote and co-produced the disc with a sure, cold hand on the nostalgia knob. The 12 tracks segue seamlessly in a classic club format, and nods to '70s and '80s stalwarts pop up like so many desktop icons: ABBA, Donna Summer, Depeche Mode, Tom Tom Club, S.O.S. Band, and, of course, early Madonna. It feels less like a walk down memory lane than a defiant reminder of her place in history.
''Time goes by so slowly," she sings to the click of a ticking clock on the opening song and first single, ''Hung Up." Turning back in time is much quicker business. The track, made of galloping synthesizers and slap bass, morphs dramatically from muffled to intensely crisp, announcing our arrival in Madonna's former glory days in which, with single-minded efficiency, she plumbs the shallow ecstasies of the dance floor.
The artist's icy demeanor suits the simple-minded seduction of late-night hookups brilliantly. She apologizes in several languages on ''Sorry," and international club scene denizens will surely appreciate the fact that Madonna sounds as unrepentant in French as she does in Spanish. In ''I Love New York" Madonna disses every metropolis except the one that doesn't make her feel like ''a dork."
Sassy Madonna dominates the first half of the disc. No point, no kabbalah, just release. But then she starts to self-reflect, and the thrills begin to suffer in the clash of shimmering soundscapes and ponderous ruminations. ''Now I can tell you about success, about fame," she intones over violins in the indecipherably titled ''Let It Will Be." ''I spent my whole life wanting to be talked about / I did it!" she crows in ''How High," going on to wonder ''Was it all worth it?" There's nothing like the sound of the culture's most calculating pop star pondering her choices to suck the life out of the party.
And then there's ''The Binding of Isaac," the source of Madonna's latest controversy. Featuring the chanting Yemenite vocals of Yitzhak Sinwani, the song has drawn protest from some rabbis and religious scholars who claim the subject is a 16th-century Jewish scholar whose name cannot be used for profit. Plucked guitar and sinuous strings, not to mention the album's only melody, give the track a gravitas -- and a soul, however blasphemous -- absent elsewhere. But Madge quickly recovers her cool, in so doing answering her detractors.
''This is who I am / You can like it or not / You can love me or leave me / Cause I'm never gonna stop" is the album's closing sentiment, sung in a low, steady drone over the beat machines. It's a promise she's likely to keep.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org