Monday, November 07, 2005

Savory 'Confessions'

So, over the weekend, I happened to luck upon an advance copy of Madonna's highly anticipated (and extremely well-guarded) new CD, Confessions on a Dance Floor. I can't even begin to tell you how excited I was to come by this, and I'll have to fill you in on my experience at the Brokeback Mountain press junket later (it was awesome!), but for now, I just want to post my review of the CD here. So here you go:

Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor

I've often been of the mindset that, for an artist to retrace his or her steps and revert to their old ways is a bit of a waste of their talent. I mean, isn't it better for them to mature and grow as an artist, instead of just rehashing "the good ol' days" over and over to make a quick buck? Is an artist really an artist if he or she is just pulling from their old hits and updating them for lazy audiences? It's kind of hard to say. After all, some bands and artists have made a career out of this. While Britney Spears continues to churn out forgettably inane pop ditties that rarely build upon anything she's done before, Christina Aguilera at least managed to snag Linda Perry to write some more mature-sounding tracks to balance out most of the fluff on her last record. Kylie Minogue is another one who is guilty of this, as nearly everything she puts out sounds like pure dance drivel to this reviewers' ears.

Madonna, however, has made a career out of building upon her past, of propelling herself into the future--indeed, of reinventing herself, as so many are apt to say. Just when audiences had her pegged as a lace-ridden pop tart, she ditched the bras and dime store clothing for a more mature sexpot look and defied our definition of her. Ever since unveiling the highly dramatic "Live to Tell" video in 1986, she's continued to confound our expectations by using her body as a canvass for her artistic expression. Her music has been part of this revolution, too: No two Madonna records sound the same. On each one, she has ditched past collaborators to take up with new ones who would help to reshape and redefine her "sound," hoping to stay one step ahead of her listeners. And, for the most part, it worked. Not until 2003's sorely underrated American Life--surely one of her boldest and most daring risks in her career because of its sheer simplicity, its incredibly personal intimacy--did audiences revolt. They wanted "the old Madge," the one who wasn't afraid to titillate and whip up some controversy. Who was this woman singing about love and the emptiness of fame and fortune?

Of course, many artists have been victim to this way of thinking. Liz Phair, in particular, has experienced major backlash after abandoning her indie roots for a more mainstream pop sound. Audiences equate certain artists with a particular time in their lives, and they don't want those artists to grow and change. I think it has to do with audiences feeling the loss of youth, and it makes them sad to realize that they, too, are getting older. And nobody likes to admit that they are getting older. Except Madonna.

Yet, here she is taking to the dance floor like a brazen hussy in heat once again, gyrating at the Euro MTV VMAs with a scantily clad cast of attractive dancers and achieving seemingly impossible yoga moves in the video for her latest single "Hung Up." Here's Madge once again telling us to forget about our woes and cares (like she did way back when on "Holiday") and just celebrate life and love. Here's pop music's queen of reinvention taking a step back for the first time in her career to "re-invent" herself as... um, a dancing queen.

So what gives? Has Esther taken into consideration all the criticism she got for American Life and decided to give audiences what they want? Perhaps. It's no secret that her album sales are not what they used to be (though it warrants mention that her Re-Invetion Tour was 2004's most successful tour and that recent appearances at Live-8 and those VMAs have gotten audiences off their feet and screaming out for more). But, here's the thing: while any other artist might make such a brazen attempt at recapturing their glory days look like a calculated move to "cash in," Madonna actually makes it look not just genuine, but like a step AHEAD in her career. In fact, as she did on that amazing Re-Invention Tour, she snags bits and pieces from her 20+ years in the business and tosses them into her new stuff, bringing her career full circle while also launching it into its next phase.

Madge's latest disc, the thrilling Confessions On a Dance Floor, is truly one of her strongest records to date, buoyed by Stuart Price's (aka Jacques lu Cont) magnificent production and some of Madonna's tightest songwriting in years. While I was a major fan of 2001's Music and of American Life, Confessions... is by far her strongest album since 1998's Ray of Light. In fact, it's not exaggeration to say that this album has the potential to relaunch Madonna's career into the cultural zeitgest in the same manner that Ray of Light did for her. That record helped her to gain her first Grammy Awards and garnered her solid critical praise, not to mention a brand new generation of fans. Confessions could very well do the same thing; it's that good.

From the solid opener, "Hung Up," an addictively retro "disco" tune that borrows a bit of melody from Abba's "Gimme Gimme Gimme," all the way through the disc's final mantra of self-love, "Like It or Not," Confessions is an exercise in pop wizardry and sorcery. With Price (her musical director for both the Drowned World and Re-Invention tours) as her cohort and chief partner in crime, Madge boogie-woogies her way back into our hearts through her sheer tenacity, not to mention some of the most hummable pop confections in ages.

"Hung Up," of course, has already threatened to become ubiquitous with everything from cell phones to clocks, as demonstrated by those cheeky Motorolla ads. And the video--a sly homage to the sweaty antics of Bob Fosse-inspired choreography (not to mention yoga)--is a wonderful portrait of Madonna as she celebrates middle life. The song is gimmicky in the best sense of the word, with those soaring strings punctuating the throbbing insistence of the melody, by far one of her most infectious to date. I give it a 9 out of 10.

Track 2, the lovely "Get Together," incorporates the bass line from the old Stardust tune "Music Sounds Better with You," and sounds like something Madge might have cooked up with Everything but the Girl's Ben Watt (now wouldn't THAT be an inspired pairing? Here's my bid for that partnership to happen in the future). On it, Madonna revisits her ongoing dismissal of the Material World in favor of the all-healing power of love, singing, "I've searched my whole life to find the secret/But all I did was open my eyes/Baby, we can do it, we can do it all night" before asking "Do you believe we can change the future?" The melody is a bit more relaxed than that of "Hung Up," with nary the exhaustive production. This one is more simple and straight-forward, but Madonna's soaring vocals are entrancing, drawing us into her cry for uniting in the name of love. This one gets a 10.

The third track, the stunning "Sorry," is truly one of the album's masterpieces. It begins with Madonna saying she is sorry in a few different languages before the thumping melody builds and builds into a first chorus. She snatches a bit of the melody from The Jackson's "Can You Feel It" and incorporates it into this dismissal of a lover's plea for forgiveness. "I don't wanna hear/I don't wanna know/Please don't say you're sorry/I've heard it all before/And I can take care of myself," she proclaims. It's a magnificent statement of independence, and also a truly spellbinding tune. Another solid 10.

Some may be a bit baffled by the challenging "Future Lovers," a track which begins with Madonna telling us, "I'm going to tell you about love" before launching into one of her most ambitiously daring tracks since Music's "Impressive Instant." (This is no coincidence, as Music collaborator Mirwais Adhmadzi was her co-author on this one.) It's impossible not to recognize the Giorgio Moroder influence here as Madonna chants "Give me evidence of its brilliance" as she speaks of love. When I first heard it, I wasn't sure what to think of it, but it's growing on me now. It's a busy song, but that's not a bad thing. Just takes a bit to get into. I give it an 8.

"I Love New York" is probably the best/worst song on the CD. It begins with Madonna rhyming New York with dork, and further dips into the well of inanely simplistic rhymes when she arrogantly declares "If you don't like my attitude, then you can F. off/Just go to Texas/Isn't that where they golf?/New York is not for little pussies who scream/If you can't stand the heat then get off my street." I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it's the closest thing to a rock song that Confessions has going for it, but on the other, Madonna's unnecessarily combative lyrics seem to defy her pledges of love and unity? Why the need to come off like such a bitch? Then again, I kinda dig the melody, and well, I like an artist who's not afraid to tick me off. Besides, Madonna owns the New York City dance circuit, so she has earned the right to be a little bitchy when it comes to her favored city. So let's give it a 7.5 then.

The oddly-named "Let It Will Be" starts with a nod toward Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" with its use of strings, then moves into a heavily vocoder'd tune with Madge singing "Now I can tell you about success, about fame." Of course, she acknowledges that those things aren't all that important in the long run. "Now I can tell you about the place that I belong/It won't last long/The lights they will turn down," she offers, casting off her anxiety (and apparently any worries over her career) as she begs us to "let it be." Not exactly the Beatles, but still pretty damn good. I throw it an 8.

"Let It Will Be" moves effortlessly into "Forbidden Love," which finds Madge questioning such an affair. One can't help but wonder just who the hell she is singing about (Certainly not Guy, right? What's forbidden about their marriage anyway?), but I suppose we can't read too much into her lyrics. Best to just sit back and enjoy the Kraftwerk-inspired track, which is a dreamy one from start to finish. There's a nod to Daft Punk in there somewhere, though hey, didn't Madge already have a song called "Forbidden Love"? Regardless, this one is definitely worthy of an 8.

I hear a little bit of the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" on the next tune, "Jump," on which Madonna champions the need for taking a risk and finding a place of one's own while simultaneously singing of the need for familial support. The song has a wonderfully evocative mood, and it feels shorter than it is, clocking in a 3:44, but it packs a lot into that small space. It's one of the record's true standouts. And who can't take an example from Madonna's ability to take a jump into the risky unknown? I give it an 9.5.

One of my favorite tunes on the album is the wonderful "How High," which again finds Madonna deconstructing her need for attention over the years. "It's funny," she sings, "I spent my whole life wanting to be talked about/I did just about everything to see my name in lights/Was it all worth it?/And how did I earn it?/Nobody's perfect/I guess I deserved it." On the chorus, she questions her own significance in the grand scheme of things, and even takes her critics to task for their mean-spirited slings and arrows. "It's funny how everybody mentions my name/But they're never very nice," she says. "I took it, just about everything/Except my own advice." Throughout the sumptuous chorus, she keeps wondering if any of her efforts will matter when she's gone. It's a bold yet humble track, demonstrating Madonna's increasing willingness to criticize herself. I like it. It gets a solid 9.

Things slow down a little bit at first for the opening of "Isaac," which features Jewish chanting, lots of strings and guitars and a riff borrowed from "Die Another Die" (and a few of those "mmmm-mmmms" from "Frozen") as Madonna tells the inspirational tale of Kabbalistic forces and a Kabbalah figurehead who braved the world even when his spirit was crushed. One's fondness for the track may depend on one's fondness for swirling strings and Jewish mysticism, but the song's trance-like energy and Madonna's sensual vocals carry it along to its climax. And I like that Madge isn't afraid to borrow from her own canon of work with samples from old songs. I kinda dig this one, so I'm giving it a 9.

Another personal favorite is the daring "Push," which is unlike anything else on the record. Here, Madonna seems to be singing to her hot Irish hubby, telling him "Every move I make/Every step I take/Everything I do/It's all because you push me." There's an interesting Middle Eastern vibe that runs through this one (which works, considering it comes right after "Isasc"), and every time I hear it, I just want to sing along. I'm a sucker for love song, though, and here Madonna doesn't disappoint me. I'm giving it a 9.5.

I have to admit, I find the disc's closer "Like It Or Not," to be a bit baffling. Not because it's not a good song (it sure as heck is), but because it seems to end the record on an odd note. It's a little darker and dreamier than the previous songs, and a bit slower as well, and just kind of fades out at the end. I would have expected a bit more of a definitive ending, but this is definitely a fabulous Madonna song. Here, she brushes aside those who dismiss her, telling them "This is who I am/You can like it or not/You can love me or leave me/'Cause I'm never going to stop." After the ambiguity of "How High" (on which she wondered if she should stick around), it's great to see her telling us that she's not going anywhere anytime soon. To this Madonna fan, such an assurance is the best thing about the whole disc. I give it a 9.

I don't usually do track-by-track reviews, but in this case, I felt that the need to. I'm quite pleased with this latest Madonna record. There are moments on it that are among the best of her career. What really strikes me about this record is that, despite reports that Madge was "softening up" on the whole spiritual pursuit thing in favor of good old fashioned disco tunes, the record is filled with references to her Kabbalistic tendencies. Which is fine by me. She seems more grounded, more centered, more focused, than she has in years. This is the sound of a woman who has lived long enough to realize the value in soul-searching, and it's an inspired declaration of her continued artistic integrity and relevance in today's world.
Though she's no longer the bratty femme fatale who masturbated herself into a frenzy onstage and made out with butch dykes in her videos, Madonna is still showing us that she's just as "spirited" as ever. Her energy has just been channeled into a different sort of expression.

Some of you may think her time in the spotlight has come and gone, but if there's one thing that Confessions On a Dance Floor proves, it's that Madonna will always find ways to find her way into our stereos--and even into our hearts. Simply put, you just can't keep a good woman down.

Grade: A


At 11:25 AM, Anonymous Clint said...

Die Another Die should be Die Another Day...I was also surprised you didn't mention the similarity to "Every Breath You Take" on "Push." I love your review though!


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