Madame X (Universal)
Far from disappearing, in what Our Betters like to describe as a shallow, anti-intellectual, attention-limited generational shift, The Big Statement has come roaring back in recent years.
It could be the thematic album, the political album, the socially uplifting album, the personal revenge album. It could be the multi-media/multi-platform concept, the genre-straddling move, the mega-mechanics stadium show, and even the Super Bowl half time show, show.
If you’re super ambitious and ego-stuffed, or called Kanye West, you’ll try all of them at some point. If you’re super ambitious and in your pomp, or called Beyonce, you will do them all.
Madame X is Madonna’s Big Statement. It touches on politics and dives deep into social commentary, it moves between genres and styles and is loosely a concept album. It has more ideas than be comfortably contained; is intentionally and accidentally provocative, and sometimes is plain insulting. And it is not always - maybe even not often - very good, but is so adventurous that chutzpah might become its own marker of worth.
If this is what desperate need for relevance (the standard criticism applied to her for, hmm, more than 30 years) feels like, it’s fair to note that you could operate South Australia’s power grid from its internal drive, with or without sun and wind.
“Not everyone can come into the future/Not everyone that’s here is gonna last.”
What exactly is this Big Statement? That’s complicated. Or maybe so simple as to invite us to complicate.
The titular character, who in interviews Madonna has described as “a secret agent [who] travels the world … changes her identity … sleeps with one eye open”, is probably best understood not by that B-grade movie elevator pitch (part SALT/Mrs Smith, part Austin Powers, but with Helen Mirren’s insouciance from Red) but by the images chosen to represent.
Madame X is presented as a lip-stitched, arched-eyebrow, direct-gazing porcelain-ish face of certainty (on the regular album); a scarf-headed, off stage-gazing, somewhat forlorn, worker’s rebellion face (on the deluxe version); and an eyepatch-sporting, coolly in-control, wise but energised elder (in her public appearances).
Those three aspects cover the messaging here. Freedom and individualism are strong, as usual, (“Don’t tell me to stop cause you said so.”) but so is a collective spirit that emphasises scepticism and resistance (“When they talk reforms it makes me laugh/They pretend to help/It makes me laugh”) and a sense of I did it, so can you if you believe (“I don’t search, I find” … “bitch, I’m loca”).
And then there’s the self-identification with the suffering and oppressed, the taking on of our burdens by the great for the good: “I’ll be Africa if Africa is shot down/I will be poor if the poor are humiliated/I’ll be a child if the children are exploited/I know what I am/And I know what I’m not/I’ll be Israel if they’re incarcerated/I'll be Native Indian if the Indian has been taken …I’ll be Islam, if Islam is hated.”
Wait. What? Yeah, that is risible. Let’s move on before that is taken seriously enough to be investigated as anything more than the delusion of the now-comfortable dressed up as well-intentioned empathy.
We’ll switch instead to the real locus of the loca, the musical and production backdrop where Madonna is operating with a cast of more than a few - but not as many as, say, Beyonce.
The inputs come from Portugal, where she’s lived some of the past few years, and Jamaica, to Africa and both the gospel and Latin-ends of New York she’s thrived in since the early ‘80s; from Columbia (singer/rapper Maluma was the directional gambit offered in the first single, Medellin) and Russia (rising star Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) to London and Parkland (as in the school shooting).
Also from California and France (producers Diplo and Mirwais, the latter her collaborator on the best thing she’s done this century, Music), to Inglewood and Brazil, and from the 1980s to as much of 2018 as could be managed.
The stylistic shifts, while in the main Latin-based, are frequently wildly divergent and make for a deliberate whiplash feel. This is the boldness - or if you are not convinced, the desperation – of an artist who no longer has any roots as such beyond her own musical life story.
Why not throw in something from The Nutcracker Suite at one end of the album (Dark Ballet) and a powerful, hand drum-dotted simple ballad (Extreme Occident) at the other? Or bring a choir and strings for a song which begins in the church and eases into the best dancefloor moment of the record (God Control) and then reprise the choir for the bit where one song goes from mid ‘80s cruising pop to mid ‘80s church-in-pop (Come Alive).
Why not invite rapper Quavo to vocoder his way around your reggae-ish life lessons (Future) and get Swae Lee to amble through your low-impact beats/slow turning desire love song (Crave) before having Maluma return for some bantering sex chat around a light dancehall vibe (Bitch I’m Loca) and then bring in the burbling groove of the second best dancefloor moment of the record (I Don’t Search I Find)?
What’s the connection? Madonna is the connection. You need more?
This is where any Big Statement has its two most vulnerable points of course.
As touched on already, unlike the black American experience (Beyonce and Solange), the self-actualising experience (Kanye West) or the self-actualising black American experience (Kanye West again, naturally), Madame X’s generalised “world needs improvement/take me as your example/we are one (even if you are not quite as good as me)”, central messages are blandly presented by a lyricist whose strengths have never been insight or conceptualising.
The other significant flaw is that there are not enough high end returns musically, especially if you get the standard version. A high rate of concepts-per-minute is not an adequate substitute for quality and there are too many times where a weak idea is replaced with another, and then another, rather than improved.
Busy-ness masks a lot but not everything on the record, and that marks it as falling rather short of the Big Statement. Yet the ambition of Madame X is not a trifling – at any stage in an artist’s career, let alone four decades in. Don’t dismiss Madonna without taking that into account.