On her 14th album, the pop star teams with Stuart Price and rolls back the clock; her latest iteration is a pre-Madonna disco vixen, basking in a ’70s musical style that she herself, among others, helped to morph and displace.
Twenty years ago, Madonna was a postmodernist’s dream. Her ability to transform herself from song to song and from album to album became a proclamation of self-nullifying empowerment, giving her the ability to create a stationary persona out of shifting identities. However, by the start of the 1990s, Madonna’s transformations appeared more calculated as she aged and fell behind the curve, trying to predict the next dominant style instead of confidently setting it.
With Confessions On A Dance Floor, her 14th album, Madonna again reinvents herself, and it appears she’s nearly lapped herself. Her latest iteration is a pre-Madonna (prima donna?) disco vixen, basking in a ’70s musical style that she herself, among others, helped to morph and displace in the early ’80s. Allowing her to accessorize creatively (love that wrap-around top), this new persona has the potential to be immensely entertaining, but there’s something a little sad about it too. At 47 Madonna is playing the role of someone 25 years younger, and those retro space leotards and that feathered hair only make her look more mature and matronly, like your friend’s mom dressed up embarrassingly for Halloween.
If the outfit depresses, the music on Confessions accomplishes the feat of making her sound young again. Kicking off the album, Hung Up is an impressive and enjoyable single, strong enough to have everyone trying to figure out if it’s her best since Ray Of Light or since Like A Prayer. The main groove is lifted from ABBA’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme (A Man After Midnight), but used in such a way that it resembles a brilliant mash-up rather than a lazy sample. Credit is due Stuart Price of Les Rhythmes Digitales, who builds a warehouse-size wall of sound for Madonna’s songs, allowing her to revel in the shameless mirrorballsiness of it all.
That collaboration stays strong over the first half of Confessions. On Get Together, as Price’s synths ebb and flow moodily, Madonna asks the eternal pop question, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”, over a tripping vocal melody. The cascades of sound wash directly into Sorry, setting up the song’s panlingual apologies and shifting bass tectonics. These songs have a deceptive lyrical vacuity that hints at greater depths, but leaves them to the listener to consider. On the other hand, Future Lovers begins with similar escapism, as Madonna warmly exhorts, “Let’s forget your life, forget your problems, administration, bills, and loans.” But it’s no simple call to the dancefloor: Over a prismatic vocal theme, she unequivocally equates music with spirituality, dancing with religious ritual.
This impressive momentum, unfortunately, is interrupted by I Love New York, which stumbles over mad-glad-bad rhyme schemes and dumb-ass lyrics like “I don’t like cities but I like New York/ Other cities make me feel like a dork.” It sounds like a transparently targeted post-9/11 valentine to the Big Apple– odd coming from an ex-pat. Inanities like “If you don’t like my attitude/ Then you can eff off” are at least partly excused by Price’s production, which builds from the beat up to incorporate rock elements that could be a nod to Brooklyn hipster dance punk.
Despite Price’s best efforts to infuse these songs with motion and finesse, Confessions never quite reaches its earlier heights after I Love New York. When Madonna actually starts confessing, the album loses its delicate balance between pop frivolity and spiritual gravity. “Now I can tell you about success, about fame,” she intones at the end of Let It Will Be, as if that’s all she knows anymore. She proselytizes the Kabbalah on Isaac, but despite the controversy that song has created, it’s remarkable only for Price’s two-note pendulum string sample and a hummed melody that could have been lifted from Frozen.
The young Madonna pops up repeatedly on Confessions, a foil to her older self. How High plumbs the motives behind her headline- and crotch-grabbing behavior of yore, but it only reveals how deeply she has embedded herself into the establishment. The album title recalls her contentious relationship to Catholicism on Papa Don’t Preach and Like A Prayer, and that pop visionary subversiveness makes her reverence to the Kabbalah seem tame by comparison. There’s no conflict between her and her new faith, so there’s no journey. As Confessions weighs down with more of her personal baggage, the songs become, despite Price’s inventive and mercurial production, less inviting and less danceable, as if Madonna wants the dance floor all to herself.