When Madonna began giving interviews to promote her fourteenth studio album, Madame X, she revealed one of the bigger influences on the album wasn’t musical, but deeply personal. “The whole inspiration for this record was completely and utterly based on going out in Lisbon and trying to make friends,” she told Apple Music. Madonna reiterated this fact to the author of a lengthy New York Times profile, and added that she was lonely living in Portugal, where she moved in 2017. “It’s quite medieval and feels like a place where time stopped in a way, and it feels very closed. There’s a cool vibe there, but where I was living with my kids, I felt very cut off from a lot.”
Loneliness isn’t necessarily a new focus or state of being for Madonna. The New York Times once observed that 1994’s Bedtime Stories touched on the topic, while in a 2014 interview, Donatella Versace relayed the advice she gave Madonna for a Versace photo campaign: “I told her she didn’t have to be just sex…’I want you to be like I know you: a vulnerable person, someone who’s afraid, someone who suffers from loneliness, but is strong, determined and fearless at the same time.'” And many of her best songs — the crystalline torch song “Live To Tell,” plush R&B ballad “Take A Bow,” the shattering electro-pop hit “Frozen” — exude deep melancholy that’s rooted in heartache and desolation.
Yet throughout Madame X, Madonna grapples with this loneliness in much bolder ways than she has in the past — by seeking out a global musical community, by aligning herself with the resistance, and by looking in the mirror and assessing the consequences of her actions. More often than not, this makes for absorbing listening, as the album’s brash, extroverted moments are balanced out by subtle (and subtly moving) contemplation.
On an obvious level, Madame X is her most explicitly political record. “God Control” is a no-holds-barred condemnation of inaction around gun control, while “Batuka” makes a veiled reference to government corruption (“Get that old man / Put him in a jail / Where he can’t stop us”). And “I Rise” starts by sampling a speech from Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez before blooming into a song about being a survivor and standing strong.
The sound of Madame X — the title refers to a nickname legendary dancer Martha Graham gave a rebellious young Madonna, who was then embracing her chameleonic identity — is also defiant. It’s easily her densest pop record, and one that’s deeply uninterested in fitting in the (far too) narrow sonic lane of the US Top 40. By now it’s clichéd to say an album “reveals itself only after repeated listens,” but in the case of Madame X, it’s the truth.
That’s mainly due to artful, smart arrangements: The album’s manicured details — Madonna’s whispered “1, 2, cha-cha-cha” on “Medellín”; the way her vocals align with measured, plucked strings on the soulful “Crazy”; and the fluttering, restrained guitars on “Killers Who Are Partying” — burrow into the subconscious instead of slamming into it. “Come Alive” is even more nuanced. As Madonna reiterates her disinterest in fitting in (“I can’t react how you thought I’d react”) and repeats the titular phrase, the song layers on holy signifiers — stoic church organ, orchestral synths, an angelic choir — that signal both a sonic and literal rebirth.
More than anything, however, Madame X is keen on embracing diverse, vibrant music cultures. Naturally, her adopted home is a major inspiration: The Portuguese all-women group Orquestra Batukadeiras reinforces the trap- and Afrobeat-driven “Batuka” with sturdy, soulful call-and-response vocals, while “Faz Gostoso” is a faithful remake of Blaya’s 2018 No. 1 Portugal hit, with Brazilian musician Anitta providing mellifluous additional vocals.
Madame X also boasts two collaborations with Colombian superstar Maluma, highlighted by the languid reggaeton strut “Medellín,” which finds her switching seamlessly between Spanish and English lyrics, and the more playful dancefloor firestarter “Bitch I’m Loca.” She alternates between singing in English and Portuguese on the string-plucked ballad “Crazy,” while “Future,” her collaboration with Migos prinicipal Quavo, is percolating, booming dancehall.
In the best move of all, Madame X features multiple collaborations with Mirwais, her first songs with the French producer since the rubbery dance jam “It’s So Cool” surfaced on 2009’s Celebration. His presence is a welcome one, as their work together (which includes the hits “Music” and “Don’t Tell Me,” as well as a few songs from 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor) is almost uniformly compelling. Madame X is no exception: The superlative “I Don’t Search I Find” is a humid electro-disco strut that’s one of her best dance songs in years, while “Dark Ballet” combines rainy-day piano trills, a digitally manipulated interpolation of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance Of The Reed Pipes” from The Nutcracker, and splotchy trip-hop beats. And in one of the album’s cleverest moments, “God Control” morphs from a gospel choir-driven elegy into a soapy, string-swept disco anthem that juxtaposes some of her most pointed commentary: “A new democracy / God and pornography.”
These Mirwais collabs are a reminder that weirder Madonna has always been fascinating — see: her cybernetic James Bond theme “Die Another Day” — in large part because these curveballs illustrate her immense creativity and willingness to challenge herself. But especially on recent records, she’s started to become hyper-aware of nonconformity’s sometimes-unpleasant byproducts — namely, isolation and loneliness. As a result, throughout Madame X, Madonna sidelines her larger-than-life stances in favor of serious introspection about faith and identity.
There are no easy answers or solutions, as she discovers. “Extreme Occident” hints at anguish that her deliberate reinventions were misconstrued as personal failings (“The thing that hurt me most / Was that I wasn’t lost”), while the poignant “Looking For Mercy” comes in the form of a plea to God asking for survival and support: “Every night, before I close my eyes / I say a little prayer that you’ll have mercy on me / Please, dear God, to live inside the divine / Not like I want to die / Teach me to forgive myself, outlive this hell.”
“Killers Who Are Partying” wrestles with even more complexity. Madonna first sings of assuming the burdens of various oppressed groups (“I will be poor, if the poor are humiliated”). As accordions swell, she intones, “I know what I am / And what I’m not,” before switching to Portuguese and singing mournfully, “O mundo é selvage / O caminho é solitário,” which in English translates to “The world is wild / The path is lonely.” The crucial pivot, however, comes when she issues a challenge: “Do you know who you are? / Will we know when to stop?” The song ends up both an expression of solidarity and a reminder that robust individuality doesn’t negate personal responsibility or insulate anyone from loneliness.
It’s heady and painful stuff, and a continuation of the themes and realizations she explored on 2015’s unfairly overlooked Rebel Heart. The rub, of course, is that Madonna isn’t always associated with this kind of insecurity, as her indomitable façade and strong personality have always overshadowed her attempts at self-reflection. As she put it herself recently to British Vogue: “People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m not pretty enough, I don’t sing well enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m not married enough, and now it’s that I’m not young enough.”
Unsurprisingly, the idea of martyrdom also crops up on Madame X, just as it did on Rebel Heart. Both albums feature songs referencing the historical martyr Joan Of Arc, who was burned at the stake, although the tunes offer starkly different perspectives on the icon. The hesitant narrator of Rebel Heart‘s “Joan Of Arc” recoils from being placed on a pedestal, as she doesn’t feel ready or self-confident enough to assume such power, while the ferocious Joan Of Arc depicted in Madame X‘s “Dark Ballet” is comfortable in her skin (“I can dress like a boy, I can dress like a girl”), and battle-ready because of her faith: “I will not renounce my faith in my sweet Lord / He has chosen me to fight against the English / And I’m not afraid at all to die ’cause I believe Him.”
It’s not a stretch to see that this pair of songs also represents Madonna’s ever-shifting views of herself — one day she feels unworthy of being an idol, and the next she’s raring to go to embrace her bulletproof nature. These slippery perspectives make her music endure: Even when she’s playing a character — or amplifying the various facets of her own personality — she’s never afraid to embrace and verbalize her own contradictions. But Madame X especially is a reminder that Madonna has always been far more human than perhaps for which she’s given credit. The good news is, by revealing vulnerability, she’s created much richer art: Although born from loneliness and separation, Madame X offers resonant emotional and musical connection.
Madame X is out now via Interscope/Boy Toy, Inc. Get it here.