Ever since she emerged from New York in the early 1980s, Madonna’s moderate abilities in music, singing and dancing have been more than made up for in searing ambition, an ability to work with the right people at the right time and a brittle form of bravery, with outer toughness masking inner frailty. Now comes probably her boldest, certainly her strangest, album yet. Madame X veers between pop, Latin and clubby dance music, jumps from the personal to the political and is bound together by an exotic, breezy mood that feels strangely intimate, as if she is revealing a hitherto hidden part of her soul. She isn’t really, of course, but she does a good job of pretending she is.
Dark Ballet, recorded with the French producer Mirwais, throws all of these qualities into one three-part experimental epic. Over piano-led, minor-key pop, Madonna variously tells us that she can dress like a boy or a girl as she wishes, castigates the world for being obsessed with fame and concludes by saying that some unnamed people, at a guess Donald Trump and his team, are naive to think that we aren’t aware of their crimes. At one point she says something indecipherable in a half robot, half Disney princess voice. It is quite a trip.
Then there is Killers Who Are Partying, on which Madonna goes the full Bono as she identifies with Africa, poor people, exploited children and pretty much everyone else who isn’t a rich, old, golf-playing white man. “I’ll be poor, if the poor are humiliated,” she claims over a touch of Portuguese fado, and although you suspect that she isn’t really about to give up her life as the most successful female pop star yet and wander the Earth as a penniless ascetic, the sentiment is there. “I’ll be Islam if Islam is hated,” she continues. “I’ll be Israel if they’re incarcerated.” World peace through song may be a naive endeavour, as John Lennon found out five decades ago, but this flash of idealism at a time of rising global division is welcome nonetheless.
There are straightforward pop songs, such as the country-leaning Crave and the English/Portuguese Crazy, but the most captivating moments push the boat out. The Latin-tinged Batuka has a wayward quality reminiscent of Brazil’s late-1960s tropicalia movement and features the unequivocally Trump-bashing line “Get that old man and put him in jail”.
It wouldn’t be a Madonna album with a bit of overt sexuality and Faz Gostoso (“make it tasty”) pours the sauce over a samba rhythm, while on I Don’t Search I Find she reconnects with her core audience via the medium of high-energy, pumping house music. Finally comes I Rise, an empowerment anthem with a sample of the now-famous speech by the Parkland shooting survivor Emma González.