|5 Dec 2000|
What a curious role guitarist Paul ‘Strangeboy’ Stacey has already played in the three-quarters finished pop almanack of Y2K. Like a riffing Zelig, the former jazz prodigy and Lemon Tree has kept the tapes rolling on Noel Gallagher’s Portastudio, also contributing basslines to the bulk of Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants and Oasis backroom boy Mark Coyle’s Tailgunner project. Now we find him - perhaps thoroughly bewildered; perhaps secretly chuckling at the kooky-ookiness of it all - playing acoustic guitar on Gone, the penultimate track on the new Madonna album. Eat your heart out, Guy Chambers.
In truth, Stacey’s brief cameo is just one symptom of the new Madonna album’s perhaps inevitable Eurocentrism. Though confined, as Q went to press, in Los Angeles, having just given birth to baby Rocco, Madonna Ciccone has been thoroughly infected by Britain, with its dry, particular notions of hipness and style, during her near two-year-long London residency. Out of this has come a more thoroughly radical-sounding album than even Ray Of Light, shaped largely by been-around-the-block French house muso Mirwais Ahmadza• (though William Orbit’s here too) and unmitigated by the safer, Pat Leonard-penned Madonna-by-numbers that made Ray Of Light - in retrospect - a bridging exercise, albeit of a fabulously tuneful and confident stripe.
Music, the single and title track (Madonna’s always telling us how much she loves music; does she worry that we don’t believe her?) opens Music the album, and it’s a daring gambit. Even when her voice isn’t being goosed by a Vocoder, the woman in the middle of this textural disco odyssey doesn’t much resemble Madonna, while the sound-focus zooms, pans, reverse-zooms and twiddly, right-speaker cascades are relied upon to provide hooks and character. Miraculously, nothing appears to repeat itself exactly, Madonna (very Madonna-ishly) uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’, and you’re left feeling slightly less impressed by French disco’s previous high-water mark, Daft Punk’s Around The World. One-nil to Robo-Madonna.
Familiar Madonna themes of decadence-as-spiritual-choice and dancefloor-as-magic-kingdom bleed into Impressive Instant - Music’s second explicit paean to dance and dancing. This time, murky slabs of grainy sonic gunk charge across the stereo spectrum as Madonna believably repeats ‘I’m in a trance’. There is the chopped-up sound of someone sucking the dregs of a McDonalds cola through a straw. Rhythm stutters, drop-outs and clever Vocoder interventions on the odd, strategic syllable add drama. The bass pumps with near-comic sexiness and, for a second time in as many songs, Madonna manages to sound as if she’s being ravished by noise. Two-nil. Already, Music is sillier, looser-limbed and less pompous than Ray Of Light, whose Return To The Source-style Goan stylings accompanied heavy Eastern religion, genuine Sanskrit prayers and poetic musings on the depth of woman-child love. Conversely, Music is a girl-meets-Guy kind of a record, perhaps best summarized by the starry-eyed lyric ‘It’s amazing what a boy can do’.
In fact a central quartet of unabashed love songs provides Music’s ballast. Runaway Lover castigates a feckless Lothario, a Flat Beat-style distorted ‘Bwaarp!’ intro morphing into high-NRG trance, with William Orbit’s breezy, widescreen style a sudden and welcome relief from Mirwais’s more claustrophobic funk, though he offers similarly rich depth of field, shape-changing bass, frontal-lobe synth squirts and bracing guitar judders.
Next is I Deserve It, which might as well have been titled My Boyfriend Guy Richie Is Totally Brilliant. Here Madonna wrests the ‘Comedown Queen’ crown from Beth Orton, Mirwais juxtaposing acoustic guitar and terse drum loop, announcing his presence with electro squeals that lift off like alarmed seabirds. Boldly minimalistic, it’s the record’s best showcase for Madonna’s post-Evita vocal sang-froid. ‘All the pain was worth it,’ she reckons, after all, which is nice.
Uncontroversially, Amazing concludes that love can be cruel but does so with a guitar-shimmering dance-rock so far best realised on Beautiful Stranger. It’s also that most Madonna of things - a mini-opera, perhaps not on Like A Prayer’s towering level, but compelling enough, especially when Orbit’s three-note, techno-treated guitar solo ceases, leaving Madonna’s voice momentarily buoyed only by ambient ripples.
This romantic tetralogy is concluded by Nobody’s Perfect. In it, Madonna has transgressed, maybe she has been unfaithful. As she whispers her heavily voice-treated confession, however, it soon transpires that it’s only a half-apology. ‘What did you expect?’ she tuts, and follows ‘I will do my best’ with a ‘yeah’ that sounds like an ‘as if’. Frankly, Madonna sounds uncomfortable with the sentiment, the tempo is ploddy and Nobody’s Perfect is the album’s glum musical low-point.
Even so, we’ve come a long way since the first words uttered on Ray Of Light: ‘I traded fame for love/Without a second thought.’ Music the album is born out of a contentment that Ray Of Light denied with almost every couplet, and though it wouldn’t be fair to wish existential anguish upon Madonna there’s a point where you begin to miss Ray Of Light’s wordy, startlingly frank ruminations about star-fuckers, emotional want and ‘the man that I cannot keep’, not to mention its erudition. ‘Young velvet porcelain boy/Devour me,’ she moaned on Candy Perfume Girl - a line that must have owed something to William Burroughs, if via co-writer Wendy Melvoin.
Don’t Tell Me is Music’s closest cousin to the internal landscapes of Ray Of Light. Craggy singer/songwriter brother-in-law Joe Henry co-wrote, and Madonna sounds a little bit Sheryl Crow, and just a little bit crazy. Mirwais’s acoustic guitars joke at the expense of aging CD players as they stutter and drop-out and gobs of sound burst through as if a faulty speaker cable has been strategically disturbed. There’s a masterful ending - as a rhythm of insectoid whirrs and bendy ARP-style ‘wowp!’s join the guitar while Michel Colombier’s strings ape the peal of church bells - and the album’s weirdest lyric: ‘Tell the bed not to lay / Like the open mouth of a grave / Not to stare up at me / Like a calf down on its knees.’ What can she mean?
Soon-come second single What It Feels Like For A Girl inhabits more characteristic sex-Valkyrie territory, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s breathy spoken-word intro unveiling a Madonna who moves between hinted sapphism (‘Tight blue jeans/Skin that shows in patches’) and a full-on Germaine Greer war on patriarchy. Paradoxically, it’s a big, warm, soulful jacuzzi of a song with the vaguest melodic echo of Basement Jaxx’s terrific On & On. This is Bjšrk/Seal collaborator Guy Sigsworth’s single contribution, but even this is seamlessly faithful to Music’s overall chamber-house feel, confirming the impression that this is Madonna’s very first ‘headphones record’.
As we near the close, Paradise (Not For Me) is Air-ish in its lethargy and Roquefort-strength keyboard quacking, where Madonna asks, in French, why she can’t recognise the angels around her, as the spirit of Gallic chanson flits about. It’s a hint of spiritual disquiet preceding the defiance of Gone (‘Selling out/Is not my thing’) and, of course, jammy old Paul Stacey’s acoustic guitar. Cue a simple, lovely Madonna vocal undiverted by the sonic UFOs that occasionally whistle by, plus a sudden and overpowering sense that Madonna’s current self-image is the most unblemished it’s ever been.
There is some logic in a record beginning with the sentiment ‘Music makes the people come together/Never gonna stop’ and ending with ‘the day the music died’. There is even more overpowering logic including a UK Number 1 single on an album that emerges within six months of its release. However, American Pie still sounds horrible, Orbit’s ambient clichés working overhard to swamp the tune’s essentially chaste, fixed-grin plasticity, and it’s hard not to envy the Americans, whose version of Music is Pie-free.
Yet it would be harsh to allow this note of uncharacteristic meekness to mar such a brave, radical and punchy (at a refreshing 49 minutes in length) album. There is no Frozen here, no Power Of Goodbye to dissipate the thrilling non-stop Eurocentric disco surge, barely a sop to Madonna’s more conservative constituency. More than ever before, in fact, this is Madonna without a safety net.
RECORDED Winter 1999-Spring 2000 at Sarm West, London, Guerilla Beach, LA and Hit Factory, New York. Mixed at Olympic Studios, London by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent.
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