With a little Ray of Light, Madonna fell into electronica — or, at least, her version of it — and the early word on the follow-up to that album was that she would burrow even deeper into subterranean dance grooves. The rumors were all but confirmed when one cut, ”Music,” was bootlegged over the Internet this summer. Even amid its scratchy, boot-quality sound, the song felt like a seductive middle ground between the past (’80s electro) and present (house). Then the track was officially released, with cover art depicting Maddy not as a space-age vixen but, of all non sequiturs, as a rhinestone cowgirl. Techno? Country? Where was all this going?
The same question can be asked of the album, also called Music. It opens with that single, which grows more intricate and dizzying each passing second, thanks to French techno producer Mirwais Ahmadzai. Even as Madonna tosses off her inconsequential lyrics (”When the music starts/I never wanna stop”), Mirwais (who, like his employer, goes only by his first name) devilishly cranks up pingponging synths, heart-monitor beeps, and electronic sirens, and his bass lines hit your chest with a hard thwack. These French electronicists and their humor: It must be something in the Seine.
Helming 6 of the 10 tracks, Mirwais — a 39-year-old ex-punker with a fondness for folktronica — is the record’s dominant musical force. In fact, his own maniacal European album, Production (released in Europe early this year and scheduled for Stateside unveiling in January), serves as a blueprint for Music. On the second cut, ”Impressive Instant,” Madonna doles out her dippiest lyrics in ages (”Cosmic systems intertwine/Astral bodies drip like wine”), but Mirwais goes all out, encasing her in a jet-stream, hard-disco beat and continually contorting her voice. On this sort of musical whirlybird, you can practically see the producer wildly twiddling synthesizer knobs to find the most whacked-out sounds he can, before running over to yet another machine in search of more sonic dementia. His approach isn’t especially deep, but it’s a good match for Y2K Madonna. An over-40 mother of two, she can no longer startle us with image or lifestyle, especially when her competition is Eminem and crafty girls two decades her junior. All that’s left is to surprise us with music, which the Mirwais tracks do.
If only the entire album were so bold. With several other producers pitching in, it’s her most patchwork record since the Sean Penn years. Music burps and thumps harder than Ray of Light, and it allows her moments of playful humor absent from that dour, albeit vital, predecessor. But it doesn’t have the cohesiveness of Light or 1994’s Bedtime Stories, and it commits a heretofore unimaginable Madonna sin: Like its title, it’s a little drab.