Don't judge this book by its cover.
Madonna may be dressing like a cowgirl these days, but she sure doesn't sound like one. And while she may be toying with an acoustic guitar on the back cover, it's not an instrument that comes to the fore often on this very electronic-sounding, dance-club-ready 10-song CD.
After the one-two yawn of 1998's trance-inducing Ray of Light and 1994's tepid urban rhythmed Bedtime Stories, Madonna's first album of the new decade is a breath of the old Material Girl.
Madonna seems more concerned about a good groove and stepping out to "boogie woogie" than with creating transcendental trance music, and her eighth full-length studio album kicks up the beats per minute from start to finish, a refreshing departure from the ambient excess of Ray of Light.
Ray's mastermind, producer/electronica artist William Orbit, is still in the picture (and his remixing sensibilities do come into play with orchestral underpinning and a touch of late-night trance on the CD), but the lion's share of the credit for this return to form for Madonna goes to French producer/songwriter Mirwais Ahmadzai.
Credit Ahmadzai with reminding the Material Girl that you have to have something worth dancing to if you want to conquer the dance circuit. Credit him also with showing her what "ambient" is really all about (it doesn't have to mean "boring"). Ahmadzai co-wrote "Paradise (Not for Me)" with Madonna, and it's one of her most adventurous outings, a hauntingly bittersweet 6½-minute synthesized extravaganza that finds Madonna convincingly sing-speaking lyrics of an older character who says "I can't remember/when I was young/ into your eyes/my face remains."
Opening with the retro-disco snap of the title track and first single, "Music" returns to the home ground that lifted Madonna to fame — songs about dancing that beg for DJ mixing. This one even appeals straight to the source at the beginning, asking: "Hey Mr. DJ, put another record on, I want to dance with my baby."
Music's upbeat techno vibe rolls right on into "Impressive Instant," the first of several songs that feature Madonna playing with the vocoder voice-altering machine that brought Cher's pop career back from the dead last year.
Orbit and Ahmadzai put her vocals through all sorts of electronic calisthenics on this disc, sometimes making it seem as though Madonna is dueting with a horde of Lilliputians. But the result is a never-ending cycle of sound that keeps Music from falling into the same dense pit of synthesizer loops that turned Ray of Light into a snooze.
"It's Amazing" is a Madonna/Orbit collaboration that would fit in well with their "Beautiful Stranger" single from the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack, and "Nobody's Perfect" cashes in heavily again on Cher's vocoder "Believe" trickery.
While Madonna has left her former bubblegum pop hit territory to the younger girls (Britney Spears and Chicago's Nina Gordon are currently handling '80s Madonna pop territory better than Madonna did herself), she seems determined to stay on top of the dance floor scene.
But while the dance element of this disc may succeed much more than her past couple of albums, the best melodies still come when Madonna lets go of the remix button and just sings a song. On "What It Feels Like for a Girl," she lets the wash of sound build around her as she sings with honest emotion, asking guys everywhere to think about, "Do you know what it feels like for a girl/do you know what it feels like in this world for a girl?"
It also helps when she's got some organic instruments backing her, rather than the often sterile backdrop of electronic beats and synthesizer chords. The best songs on Music rely on simple guitar lines to ground them, even when washes of orchestral sounds and slap drums surround them.
"I Deserve It" strips away all the gimmickry and leaves the singer to croon on her own with a softly strumming guitar. It's a poignant, perfect hymn to her current flame, Guy Ritchie, an autobiographical signpost with lyrics that stand as her own personal treatise and as a universal poem for any girl who looks at them with a lowercase G:
"This Guy was meant for me
and I was meant for him
this Guy was dreamt for me
and I was dreamt for him ...
many miles, many roads I have traveled
fallen down on the way
many hearts, many years have unraveled
leading up to today."
The other key tracks also involve a well-carved guitar lick. "Don't Tell Me" starts with a picked guitar line that is stopped, started, chopped, diced and then underscored by electronic drums and strings. Before you know it, there's a symphony of groove happening as Madonna croons, "don't you ever tell me love isn't true/it's just something that we do."
"Gone" caps the album with the questionable line, "selling out is not my thing" (then again, maybe it's not questionable — Madonna doesn't sell-out musically, she usurps). But the easily strummed guitar and unaffected simple harmonized chorus on "Gone" are what pop music is all about — catchy melody — and it's a welcome place for Madonna to return to.
Music is the album Madonna has been reaching toward for a decade. Fun, savvy and instantly catchy, watch for this Music to be dominating the charts for the rest of the year.