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.