Nightman Listens To – Madonna – Madame X!

Greetings, Glancers! We’re finally here, the last (as of 2020) Madonna album. I’m sure she’ll continue making music as long as she is able, but for now we will be 100% caught up by the end of this post. This album was released in 2019 and as far as I can tell it didn’t sell or perform very well. In truth, all I know about it is from her disastrous performance at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest (North Macedonia was robbed – never forget). She performed at least one song from this album at the show, some prat was rapping or singing or howling alongside her, I can’t really remember now, but he was clearly a dickhead. Looking at the tracklist, there’s nothing I recognise, so lets just get on with it.

Medellin‘ opens with a whispered count in and a simple backing beat. That’s all good, but the vocals are auto-tuned, which is never good. Some bloke is whispering sweet nothings in the background, which isn’t great. The verse isn’t bad – if they’d not messed with the vocals it would have been preferable – but the chorus features the bloke talking about something in lieu of anything worthwhile. It’s a very sparse, Latin arrangement – Producers these days seem to be afraid of filling space and relying on clicking and air to get their point across. It does have an infectious beat, at times, and the arrangement does change from phrase to phrase, but it’s never enough to make it more of a passing interest. Even without the irritating vocals, I don’t see this being more than a C grade song.

Dark Ballet‘ has a more interesting melody, and I suppose a more powerful message, but the vocals are messed up again. The debate over whether this is a creative decision or because of the limitations of her vocals and age and range or whatever, will rage on. In any case, it doesn’t sound good. It’s another sparse arrangement, one which suits the general ambience of the song, and just before halfway there’s a great piano breakdown which comes out of nowhere, before leading into a hilarious Daft Punk robotic schizo fairground section. It’s pure prog and it’s funny and memorable. I’m torn over whether it all works or not, but on my first time listen I’m enjoying it. It makes up pretty much the entirety of the rest of the song, but for a beautiful, near Radiohead inspired piano finish. If only the vocals at the start hadn’t been run through the auto-tune.

God Control‘ continues the sparse piano trend. It all continues the vocal nonsense. I think I’ll just have to accept that this album is going full auto-tune and live with it. As the verse progresses, we do get a sweet swelling of choir vocals – not auto-tuned – and then the song descends into a funky disco inspired section which is again pretty cool. Lots of different influences and instruments at play, from the tangled manic strings, to the the tumbling bass. It’s actually quite good – I’m not sure I could see this being a dancefloor filler as it feels too offbeat for the general club masses, but it’s certainly groovy and both a call-back to Madonna’s dance hits and a somehow logical next step in her evolution. All this and the lyrics are topical.  It packs a lot into its six minutes and is definitely one to listen to again.

Future‘ sounds familiar. Did she play this at Eurovision? There’s some warbling vocals before a Reggae beat forces its way into the fore. It’s more repetitive than I would like, but it does retain that catchy quality that people look for in a pop song. The bloke vocals are a step too far for me into shitty territory. This is a very simple song compared to the others so far, it’s basically that monotone chorus with a few added snippets and senseless vocals. The best moments are simply Madonna singing without any assorted crap.

Batuka‘ begins with a thump and various claps and chanting, like the beginnings of a street parade or party. Lyrically it’s concerned once more with revolution, change, where our present acts are leading us. It has a hypnotic throbbing leading us through various mantra style sections. I can see many people being put off by this, but I quite like it – at least on first listen. At least the Producers have moved away from embracing the quiet spaces and are packing a lot into this one. Yes, the vocals are still squeezed through a hundred apps, but if I accept that fact they’re not so bad. It does lose some of its steam before the five minutes is up, but does just about enough to hold interest – the final thirty seconds or so are pretty great.

Killers Who Are Partying‘ begins with more manic piano and keys before a simple, potent beat joins. Madonna is aligning herself with a number of groups, people, places, presumably in support and to lend her strength. Melodically and instrumentally interesting once more, the verse and bridge lead to a Spanish vocals section (or is it Portuguese?). I assume the title refers to the groups who do the exploiting, and Madonna is coming after them. It mostly works, and continues the ambitious experimental approach, which should be applauded. When the biggest (I assume that’s still the case) pop star in the world experiments like this, it really puts the young pretenders (or at least the young basic bland hit makers) to shame. I would hope stuff like this, even if I don’t think it’s amazing, would cause everyone else to raise their game.

Crave‘ feels like the straightforward ballad of the album. A simple guitar intro leads to a nice verse melody – her vocals here feel a little like they’re aping Sia – the beats are of the unfortunately wafer variety. If she’d gone for no effects on her vocals and if the beats were changed, and if whoever the bloke was had fucked off completely, this would be great. The bloke is the clincher – taking this from a very good song to something I’m not sure I want to hear again. I’d gladly listen again with another male singer, or Madonna doing the whole thing, because it is very sweet and sad.

Crazy‘ opens with some melancholy parps before a rapid fire vocal verse drops. The bridge is even better, and the chorus tops it off – sweet and sad again. Please don’t let some random bloke begin shrieking in the background. Speaking of shrieking, Madonna’s vocals in the second verse are very good. This may be my favourite song on the album so far. The beat is infectious too – you can sort of dance to it, like an introspective laying back in your swivel chair letting yourself bounce back and forth sort of dance.

Come Alive‘ has a galloping beat which sounds like it was made with a couple of empty tin cans. The verses are more monotone than I would like, but the chorus packs in a couple of cute melodies. Sweet harmonies there too. It’s another call to her fans, and to people in general to listen, to make whatever their stand may be. Musically, I wouldn’t normally like this approach, and it may grate on me with successive listens, but for now I can dig it. She does manage to make it less irritating than a lesser artist would. The choir takes over for the hopeful finale.

Faz Gostoso‘ is full on Latino dance flavour. It’s fast, controlled yet manic, and is the sort of thing I probably would have loved as a teenager on holiday in The Balearics. The same comment made on the previous song stands here – I shouldn’t really like this given my tastes, and I may not in the future, but she somehow makes it likeable. There’s an undercurrent of urgency, emotion, and energy, and all the changes in style the song employs are to its strength.

Bitch I’m Loca‘ continues the overt Latin feel. It’s another dance oriented track, the bloke vocals make a return, but they’re not quite as pissy here. This one feels exactly like the sort of thing which would be a hit on those Ibiza dancefloors. Put it inside, eh?

I Don’t Search I Find‘ opens like a raver’s idea of Disco. Strings, a growing beat. Hypnotic. The main beat sound is again too thin and weak. The sound gets marginally better as the other levels are added. The strings need to change a little to avoid becoming annoying, but plenty of other blips and noises are added as accompaniment. Like most rave stuff, it takes an overly repetitive approach, but Madonna is smart enough to make it more than a mere dead-brained beat so makes sure it has enough layers. Vocals and melodies good here too. The album feels like it has taken a step away from the more progressive elements of the first half to focus on more radio friendly songs, while keeping that air of experimentation.

I Rise‘ closes the album in fiery fashion, with the voice of, I assume some young person I should know about. In any case, it follows with the theme of revolution, understanding, and bringing change. Again, it’s hopeful with a hint of anger. I’m happy to say there hasn’t been a bad song here, and this is a fitting conclusion. It isn’t an amazing closer, but it is apt, and it is very good. It works both as a progressive part of the album, and as a standalone song – though I don’t know if it has quite enough to be the sort of stand alone song people seek out.

I take it back. Well, I don’t, but the crapness of the Eurovision performance had me expecting this to be bad, and filled with needless partnerships and accompanying artists. There are collaborations, but for the most part she continues to get the best out of those where the building of the songs and productions are concerned. The worst moments, and there are a few of them, is when she invites the collaborators to perform alongside her. I know these types of performers are all the rage now, but they’re seriously terrible. I’ve said it before, but these people are nowhere near on the level of Madonna and their inclusion drags the respective songs down. Elsewhere, my only gripe, a personal gripe, is with the effects on Madonna’s vocals. There are many places where it’s clear this is done for a reason, but there are just as many instances where it seems that the reason is not clear, leading me or more vocal critics to assume it’s because she just couldn’t perform the songs naturally the way she wanted to. Musically, I assumed it was going to be a Latin heavy album – there are clear South American influences, but there is also a lot of Europe, of Asia, of looking back into US musical history, and forward towards what’s next. She is actively stretching her feelers into the void to see what works, to see what could be next, and you can sense her, frustrated, urging others to take on the challenge and drag music – good music – into a new era. There are plenty of songs here I’ll be listening to again – I certainly think the album is strong enough to warrant another full listen – but I am concerned that the dance and the pop moments may be too obscure or obtuse for regular radio play and regular fans. That’s one of the frustrations aforementioned – making music which both challenges personally and her fanbase and the wider world, while making it melodic and accessible. I think she has succeeded again. It’s up to everyone else now to answer her.

Nightman’s Playlist Picks: I’ll definitely listen to the whole thing again, but off the top of my head I think my favourites will be God Control, Crazy, Dark Ballet.