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First, let me preface this review by stating I’ve long been a Madonna fan since I bought her first 12-inch single “Everybody” in the fall of 1982, which felt like discovering a hidden treasure at the time. So, whether you agree or disagree with my following assessment of Madame X, just know I’m well versed in the subject of Madonna and her iconic catalog.
I must confess I was not impressed with the first glimpses released (as you can easily surmise from my previous comments regarding lead single “Medellín”), but upon hearing “Dark Ballet,” I admit I was concurrently intrigued and delighted, which forced me to ponder if my expectations had caused me to approach Madonna’s 15th studio album all wrong (Yes, I consider I’m Breathless to be a proper Madonna album for those counting). In all honesty, I’ve been bad-mouthing and belittling Madame X’s seemingly contrived concept since day one, as it smacked of a veiled but calculated attempt to desperately appeal to Spanish and Portuguese markets.
Over the last several weeks, I eagerly streamed each of the first five tracks as they arrived, but with every listen my excitement was swiftly replaced by disappointment and skepticism. For the first time in 36 years, I’m not losing sleep awaiting a new Madonna album.
However, with that being said, I daringly admit to trekking my way to Target as soon as I awoke this morning to purchase the exclusive (really?) deluxe version of the Madame X CD. This latest catalog entry now resides alongside the rest of my somewhat vast Madonna collection. After countless teases via social media, plentiful merchandise offerings, music videos, the announcement of an intimate theatre tour and an entertaining press junket, Madame X has arrived.
Now that I’ve listened to Madonna’s latest work in its entirety, I will say the best word I can think of to describe my initial reaction is confounded. Upon first listen, the bulk of Madame X strikes me as material left over from Rebel Heart, but the outtakes from those sessions were actually more exciting than most of what Madonna serves up here. Throughout the album’s duration, I sometimes found myself dazzled, yet other times I was fully disheartened. The only things here that come close to being creatively interesting are: “Dark Ballet” (with its quasi-classical break), the choir laden and danceable “God Control” and the self-referential “Extreme Occidental.” Unfortunately, the annoyingly repetitious “Crazy” sounds like a bad Taylor Swift song that you hope you never have to listen to again.
The closest things you’ll find resembling “classic” Madonna here are: the danceable “I Don’t Search I Find,” the downbeat balladry of “Looking for Mercy” and the declaration of perseverance testament “I Rise.” These particular highlights sound as if the best parts of Madonna’s talent were determined to escape Jeff Bhasker, Jason Evigan and Mirwais’ heavy-handed production stratagems.
The most disappointing thing about Madame X is its over reliance on the tired studio gimmickry of auto tuned tracks, but I'm not sure if Madonna or Mirwais are to blame, as the latter’s artistic stamp similarly sullied their previous collaborative efforts on the often maligned, but highly underrated American Life. Regretfully, Madame X’s shining moments are both diminished and overshadowed by the irritating and dated studio crutch made popular by Cher more than 20 years ago.
In these days of disposable pop music, I seem to be relying on longtime favorites more and more, so my overall dissatisfaction of Madonna’s new album is especially hard for me to accept. Ultimately, I don’t hate Madame X, but I can’t justly declare I love it either. Madame X is a vast leap from the Queen of Pop’s perfectly crafted albums of past decades. Perhaps Madonna should’ve concentrated solely on the music instead of being distracted by the album’s conceptual persona?
Throughout the decades, I’ve always known I’d remain a devoutly passionate Madonna fan until the day arrived when she'd stop creating music that excited me. For this longtime Madonna fan, today sadly feels like that day.