Madonna is back with her first new music in four years, the product of her lived experiences in her new home city, Lisbon, which she has described as “a melting pot of culture musically, from Angola to Guinea-Bissau to Spain to Brazil to France to Cape Verde”. In the Portuguese capital, she says, “I found my tribe, and a magical world of incredible musicians that reinforced my belief that music across the world is truly all connected and is the soul of the universe.”
Her resulting 14th album implores us to take a ride with her new persona and her many and varied guises – “a secret agent… A dancer. A professor. A head of state. A housekeeper. An equestrian. A prisoner. A student. A mother. A child. A teacher. A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. A spy in the house of love. I am Madame X” – and the results are at once stupefying and tremendous. This record is a true cathartic journey from the expert of such travels, with brilliant past collaborator Mirwais doing much of the driving. Most of this sprawling album, sung variously in English, Portuguese and Spanish and with an astonishing array of musical flourishes, is truly experimental, and captivating with it.
The rhythmic, wistful and ethereal Medellín, a duet with Colombian superstar man of the hour Maluma, opens proceedings yet is hardly indicative of what’s to follow. Dark Ballet, basically Frozen meets John Carpenter, is next up, and evokes particularly the horror master’s sinister and marvellous soundtrack from Halloween III: Season Of The Witch with some unexpected and rather fantastic piano work and powerful lyrics, coupled with a video starring Mykki Blanco.
God Control is her call to arms – literally. Starting off as a mid-tempo diatribe exploring the state of gun control in America with a magnificent choral backdrop, the track then inexplicably weaves into a thumping disco night in Studio 54 with gunshots ringing out, all with a deft string-laden nod to Love Don’t Live Here Anymore. If Madonna wants us to wake up, we certainly have. This song shouldn’t work, and yet it absolutely does. It’s sublimely ridiculous.
Tracks precursing the album’s release include the retro and slick R&B lick Crave, with Swae Lee, and the dark and trippy Future featuring Quavo, which has Diplo‘s fingerprints all over it. Elsewhere, Killers Who Are Partying is likely to be one of the more controversial moments. Madonna has always been a champion of minorities and name-checks a good many of them here, from Africa to Islam via Israel to a woman who was raped, with some hard-hitting lyrics in support. The starkly defiant and beautiful Extreme Occident explores a push and pull between herself and her critics. Even now, while often praised for her ability to reinvent, this is now something she is derided for. The hypocrisy of her detractors in this regard is astounding.
Yet there’s space amongst it all too for some more straightforward moments. Batuka and Faz Gostoso, for example, could almost have been lifted from a Nelly Furtado album. And there are some shades of vintage Madonna and they shine brightly on what is largely an experimental album. Come Alive is spectacular, uplifting pop with soaring and wondrous harmonies and a sweeping blueprint that draws you in. I Don’t Search I Find is straight out of the ’90s, a kind of canny hybrid between her own smash Vogue and Alison Limerick‘s Where Love Lives. Crazy has a gorgeous retro feel and would not be out of place on Ariana Grande‘s latest album with some canny lyrical self-references, while Mercy is Madonna at her most cinematic, but also her most vulnerable and isolated.
The album’s closer is the powerful and introspective I Rise. An emotional intro from advocate for gun control Emma González, survivor from the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, opens the door to an anthem calling the marginalised to rise above the constraints of the dictatorial society we increasingly appear to be living in. It’s an uplifting end to one hell of a journey: bold, bizarre, brazen and beguiling, Madame X is Madonna living her Latin American Life. Brilliant.