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My freelance writing can now be found at mikeatkinson.wordpress.com.
Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.
On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.
Wednesday, May 21, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 11. The final reckoning.
Jump straight to Part One.
Supplementary Madonna-related posts:
· Live review (2006).
· Confessions on a Dancefloor: review.
· Up For Grabs: theatre review.
· Live review (2001).
Yes, track 11 is where we stop the survey. Granted, Erotica has 14 tracks and Ray Of Light has 13, but the other three only have 11, so that's where the line is drawn. Which is bad news for Erotica (In This Life is strong, and I've always loved Secret Garden), but better news for Ray Of Light (I've never thought much of Little Star or Mer Girl).
Here goes then, for the very last time.
Why's It So Hard. (from Erotica)
More tepid, inconsequential dreariness, I'm afraid. Poor old Erotica. It's not without its moments; it's just that there aren't enough of them.
Good - I can now finally allow myself to re-read Marcello Carlin's considerably more positive assessment of the album ("her one great album"), which I have deliberately stayed away from until now, in case it exerted an undue influence. He's a persuasive writer, that Marcello Carlin.
Take A Bow. (from Bedtime Stories)
If Bedtime Stories is the ultimate seduction album, then Take A Bow is the ultimate plot-twist-of-the-knife kiss-off at the end. You might have been acting out your part, mate - but I actually meant it, all along, from the bottom of my heart. And now you've broken me with your oh-so-skilful performance skills, I'd be grateful if you could just piss off now, please. All set to one of the sweetest, most beguiling melodies she has ever put her name to. Curiously enough, although this was her first UK single in years to miss the Top 10, it was also her biggest US single in years, staying at #1 for several weeks. I'm not sure what, if anything, this says about the respective psycho-sexual make-ups of our respective nations.
An absolute classic. Bittersweet, in the fullest sense of the word.
To Have And Not To Hold. (from Ray Of Light)
With lyrics such as these (you're this unattainable ideal of perfection, and all I can do is worship you from afar), Madonna can only be assuming a character which is, quite manifestly, far from her own. (The very idea!) OK, so she might be a mediocre-at-best screen actress - but as an interpretive singer, she is not without talent. What a pity that, in her latter-day quest for this-is-the-real-me authenticity, she has turned her back on this talent. And is this the right time to drop in that well-worn old truism: being natural is the biggest pose of all?
American Pie. (from Music)
Why does everyone hate this so? The way I've always understood it is this: Madonna and Rupert Everett were shooting some film together (probably shit, but I've never seen it), where they played best friends - but they were also good friends in real life, so they were hanging out a lot together. Then one day Rupert said, in that eagerly blundering public-schoolboy way of his: look here Madge old fruit, I'd love it if you sang good old American Pie for me, I mean why not, it's a great tune, wouldn't it be fun? So she said: oh, OK then Rupert, since you're a friend, and since you've asked so nicely. So they sang it together, with Rupert doing some really rather scrunchy harmonies throughout, and it just sounds like a thoroughly pleasant relaxed singalong session, almost like a home demo, except with some nice extra touches along the way. It's sweet, it's charming, it's not pretending to be a Great Statement, it doesn't fit into anybody's strategic masterplan, and so they just bunged it on the end of the album for good measure. Two good mates having a bit of a sing-song in the studio, except that one of them happens to be Madonna.
I've always absolutely loved this version, and it's taking all my objectivity not to award it full marks. And yah boo sucks to anyone who disagrees.
Easy Ride. (from American Life)
I want, I want, I want. She says that nine times in the course of the song, you know. Ooh, you should have heard K and I taking the piss out of this in the car at the weekend. We were merciless. I want the good life, but I don't want an easy ride, what I want is to work for it, feel the blood and sweat on my fingertips... yeah, yeah, yeah, pull the other one missy. Blood and sweat? You'd run shrieking to your manicurist, and don't try and tell us otherwise.
5 points: Take A Bow
4 points: American Pie
3 points: To Have And Not To Hold
2 points: Easy Ride
1 points: Why's It So Hard
37 37 32 32 27
Well, would you look at that! Bedtime Stories and Music are tied in first position, and so must share the title of Best Madonna Album. Meanwhile, American Life and Ray Of Light also tie for third position, with Erotica trailing behind in last position. Ugh, and I hate namby-pamby, everyone's-a-winner, everyone-can-go-home-happy dead heats, as well. Boo! Fix! Recount!
Thanks to Trixie for being one of the very few people to have left votes - and extra-special thanks to the lovely Janne, who has diligently voted on every single track. If I get time before going away, then I'll also calculate Janne's final score, to see whether or not he came to the same conclusions as I did.
And finally, extra-extra-special thanks go to a certain Mrs. Madonna Ritchie, just for being....Madonna. You may now clap.
Update: Janne's final votes are as follows:
39 36 33 30 28
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 10.
Rain. (from Erotica)
Sometimes, I like it best when she forgets all that trying-to-be-edgy stuff, and instead delivers a straight-up, no-messing, radio-friendly, big old sentimental AOR ballad like this one. It's a strand of Madonna's music which has all but been abandoned these days, and I think that's a bit of a shame. She should know where her strengths lie by now.
Bedtime Stories. (from Bedtime Stories)
On the other hand, I'm not about to argue with her trying-to-be-edgy side when the results are as great as this slice of Bjork-penned atmospheric daftness. Let's get unconscious on E! we all trilled, subversively. Happy days!
The Power Of Goodbye. (from Ray Of Light)
A somewhat over-mannered "operatic" delivery aside (the voice was changing big-time back then, from "Girl" to "Woman" or something, and I think she was overdoing the studied singing-lesson technique a bit too much on occasion), this is essentially another of those big-hearted radio-friendly classic ballads, and a particularly lovely one at that. Note also one of the first appearances of that acoustic strum which came to dominate so much of the next two albums.
Gone. (from Music)
Well well, if it isn't yet another BHRFCB - the only track on Music that can properly lay claim to the title. Very nice indeed, but the bar has been raised particularly high on this round.
Die Another Day. (from American Life)
When it comes to selecting singles with which to promote this new album, Madonna has done herself no favours. American Life and the forthcoming Hollywood are all stark angularity, harsh attitude, and a sentiment which begs to be dismissed as the poor-ickle-me bleatings of a self-obsessed superstar. (Not only that: as the first two tracks on the album, they cannot help but set certain preconceptions for the material which follows.) And as for Die Another Day: stark angularity, cut-up treated vocals and those infernal Mirwais bleeps and bloops combine with a lousy, unmemorable song to produce, as everyone has said, one of the weakest James Bond theme tunes ever. (Could they give the gig to Goldfrapp next time, please?)
If only she had released Love Profusion, Intervention and (especially) Nothing Fails instead. We'd all be viewing things quite differently.
5 points: The Power Of Goodbye
4 points: Rain
3 points: Bedtime Stories
2 points: Gone
1 points: Die Another Day
With one more day left to run, Music is still ahead by a whisker, as Bedtime Stories challenges it for first place. American Life drops back to third, with a late-rallying Ray Of Light threatening to knock it back into fourth. Meanwhile, it looks like curtains for poor old Erotica...
33 32 30 29 26
Jump to next part.
Monday, May 19, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 9.
Three days until I leave for Riga, and three more bundles of Madgetrax to scrutinise. As the ear infection has healed up, I guess I'd better get on with it, then.
Words. (from Erotica)
I'd forgotten just how many songs on this album sound like pale re-treads of Vogue. And here's another. Tepid, pedestrian, forgettable.
Sanctuary. (from Bedtime Stories)
The key thing to bear in mind about Bedtime Stories: it's a Seduction Album, pure and simple. It's one flowing mood from start to finish, with the whole adding up to rather more than the sum of its parts. This means that any separate track-by-track scrutiny is therefore bound to mark the album down, somewhat unfairly.
As a part within the whole, Sanctuary works wonderfully well. It's steamy, breathy, put-that-coffee-down-and-get-your-arse-over-here music, which segues perfectly into the more, uh, energetic title track with follows. Basically - and here's the rub - Bedtime Stories is a damn sight more erotic than Erotica ever was.
Frozen. (from Ray Of Light)
I don't mean to be sacriligeous, but...well...I've always thought that this was a bit of a portentous plodder. Overblown, overlong, overrated. There, I've said it. Although the actual tune itself is cute enough, I grant you.
Paradise (Not For Me). (from Music)
...whereas this track - despite being nothing more than a simple, languid, drooping four bar progression, endlessly repeated, with only the flimsiest of songs laid over the top of it - works for me in a way that the more elaborately constructed Frozen fails to do. It's still about a minute and a half too long, though.
Mother And Father. (from American Life)
In stark contrast to Bedtime Stories, American Life is an album which possibly works best of all when listened to in short bursts, track by track. This has the effect of reducing the slightly irksome similarity - in mood, key, pace, instrumentation - of many of the songs on offer. It is an album which begins shakily, with the three self-pitying "millionaire blues" tracks all grouped together, before blossoming into life with a wonderful run of warm, expressive love songs which form the heart of the album. With a return to the more abrasive starkness of before, Mother And Father now brings this run to an abrupt close.
For a lot of people, this is apparently one of the standout tracks - a companion piece to Oh Father, in the same way as Nothing Fails can be set alongside Like A Prayer. As for me: there's something about it which jars, badly. I don't want a return to that abrasive starkness - we've moved on from that now, haven't we? - and Madonna's squeaky little-girl delivery strikes me as too mannered, too knowing, and just plain irritating if truth be told. Also, the nursery-rhyme rap is, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain crap.
5 points: Sanctuary
4 points: Paradise (Not For Me)
3 points: Frozen
2 points: Words
1 points: Mother And Father
What excitement! Music pulls ahead of American Life, which now ties with a strongly resurgent Bedtime Stories. Ray Of Light and Erotica are now lagging some distance behind, with scant chance of recovery.
31 29 29 24 22
Jump to next part.
Saturday, May 10, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 8.
Thief Of Hearts. (from Erotica)
On the one hand: rhythmically, this is perhaps one Vogue-a-like too many. On the other hand: when it comes to constructing effective pieces of dancefloor fodder, that Shep Pettibone has always known what he’s doing. As a song: fairly forgettable. As a groove: it works well enough.
Love Tried To Welcome Me. (from Bedtime Stories)
A classy, yearning ballad of lovelorn heartache, buoyed by a lush orchestration and a shuffling, acoustic Latin feel (which puts me rather in mind of Gloria Estefan’s rather fine “authentic” phase of much the same period).
Shanti/Ashtangi. (from Ray Of Light)
Pretentious, more than a little ridiculous, and quite misjudged. The sort of “cultural appropriation” which ultimately comes across as mere “me too!” bandwagon jumping (I think someone must have played her a Transglobal Underground album). Makes Boy George’s Bow Down Mister look like a triumph of World Fusion Music by comparison (which, come to think of it, it was). Madge’s Edina Monsoon “I’m chanting as we speak, darling” moment.
What It Feels Like For A Girl. (from Music)
The gender-politicking spoken intro is my favourite bit. So much so, that its message rather overshadows the rest of the song which follows, lovely and well-judged as it is.
X-Static Process. (from American Life)
Contained within the flow of the album, this works well as a simple, gentle interlude piece. Taken out of this context, it doesn’t quite have strong enough legs of its own. A pleasant enough idea is merely repeated a few times over, never progressing anywhere in particular.
5 points: Love Tried To Welcome Me
4 points: What It Feels Like For A Girl
3 points: Thief Of Hearts
2 points: X-Static Process
1 points: Shanti/Ashtangi
The chronological flow is broken up, as Bedtime Stories now edges ahead of Ray Of Light. Meanwhile, the gap at the top narrows...
28 27 24 21 20
Jump to next part.
Thursday, May 08, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 7.
Waiting. (from Erotica)
An ordinary song is lifted by a moody production, and in particular by some delightful jazz piano fills (from one James "Sleepy Keys" Preston, who pops up again later on Secret Garden).
Forbidden Love. (from Bedtime Stories)
Late night sultry steaminess, of the "if this is wrong then I don't wanna be right" variety. The subliminal whispers are particularly effective.
More than any of the others, Bedtime Stories comes across as such an even-flowing album. This was the CD you always put on when you brought someone back, wasn't it? I remember now. Smirk.
Sky Fits Heaven. (from Ray Of Light)
She was great when she did all that epic-progressive-trancey-tribal-k-hole stuff, wasn't she? I'd forgotten how effectively she (and Mr. Orbit) had appropriated the genre, and added something of their own. The pseudo-spiritual twaddle in the lyrics is best ignored, though. "Fate fits karma so use it - that's what the wise man said to me. Love fits virtue so hold on to the light - that's what our future will be." Getting dangerously close to Jon Anderson territory there, lady!
Don't Tell Me. (from Music)
No arguing with this one, is there? Or am I being unduly influenced by that phwooarsome cowboy video? Oh, possibly - but there's still no way this is getting less than full marks.
Intervention. (from American Life)
With its irresistably lilting chorus, this could so easily have been fleshed out into a massive radio-friendly crowd pleaser - and yet the production has been kept so sparse, minimal, almost demo-like. Wilful contrariness, sheer laziness or artistic bravery?
But then at the end of the track, all the components finally come together and the whole production blossoms into life, gloriously. Sod it - this has got to get the five points instead.
5 points: Intervention
4 points: Don't Tell Me
3 points: Sky Fits Heaven
2 points: Forbidden Love
1 points: Waiting
Well, would you look at that. Seven tracks in, and the albums are now stacked up in reverse chronological order. She just gets better and better, doesn't she? Is that the conclusion - or is there still time for things to turn themselves around?
26 23 20 19 17
Jump to next part.
Wednesday, May 07, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 6.
Tricky business, this In Depth Thematic Analysis thing. Because, in order to do my subject justice, I am having to pay much closer attention to her lyrics than I would do normally - and I'm not someone who generally pays a great deal of attention to lyrics. With notable and honourable exceptions, of course (Mister Cave, Mister Cohen and Mister Cocker, to name but three). But really, I'm more of an Overall Musical Texture man. If the words sound nice when set against the music, then that will generally do for me.
(Perhaps it is no accident that the third album I ever bought was Walton & Sitwell's Facade, whose entirely nonsensical lyrics are merely designed to sound nice.)
Besides which: often, if start to pay too much close attention to the lyrics of a song, I will become irritated by the triteness, the limited range of stock sentiments, and - above all - by the same tired, inescapable old rhymes. Heart/apart. Love/above. Feet/beat/heat. Waiting/anticipating. Moving/grooving. Night/alright. Place/space. Teacher/preacher. And - most especially, and most fingernails-down-blackboard annoyingly of all tired old rhymes - the dread, dead coupling of fire (fye-ya!) and desire (diz-eye-ya!)
Also: there's a risk here, of which I'm becoming increasingly aware. Focus too much on the lyrical theme, spend too much time teasing out meanings and subtexts, and comparing/contrasting with the rest of the artist's oeuvre hem hem, and it is all too easy to lose sight of the main ingredient: the music. Which is, of course, much more difficult to write about in the first place, unless you're some sort of musicological theorist type. Don't know me augmented fifths from me diminished sevenths, mate!
So, all with that in mind, let us proceed to...
Bad Girl. (from Erotica)
A rueful (and sublime) universal anthem for the emotionally f***ed-up. Show me the hard-bitten Scene Queen who hasn't Lived This Song, Lived It I Tell You!, and I'll show you a liar, sir. Classic Madonna balladry, even if she does have repeated difficulties holding the note on the word "blue".
(Actually, I rather like that. It shows vulnerability. Today's digitally-enhanced, voice-coached-to-within-an-inch-of-her-life, Careful Operatic Diction Madonna would never have allowed that to happen.)
Human Nature. (from Bedtime Stories)
"I'm not your bitch, don't hang your shit on me." One of my all-time favourite lines, and a maxim for us all, I feel. Overly defensive shows of bitter, self-obsessed, yah-boo-sucks-to-the-lot-of-yer defiance don't come more magnificent than this, with its delicious atmosphere of malicious menace (and a cool-as video to boot). No regrets, hon? Really? None at all? OK, keep repeating that to yourself, and maybe in time...
Nothing Really Matters. (from Ray Of Light)
So, you're saying that you used to be self-obsessed ("I was the only one"), but now you've changed? So why, pray, do you continue - to this day - to sing about nothing but yourself? Huh? Answer me that one. I've got you now, haven't I?
Nice tune though.
(Now, don't misunderstand me here. It's not the self-obsession per se that I'm objecting to, merely the delusion that Madam is no longer self-obsessed. As far as I'm concerned, she can sing about herself as much as she likes, provided that she doesn't become boring and repetitive about it. After all, Eminem has built his entire career on doing just that. Besides, who am I to criticise someone for banging on about themselves the whole time? I'm a bloody weblogger, aren't I?)
Nobody's Perfect. (from Music)
All the deft sonic flourishes in the world (and there are plenty on show here) cannot disguise the essentially plodding, prosaic, laboured feel of the track. Not a highlight.
Nothing Fails. (from American Life)
Sometimes, there can be nothing more off-putting than reading a unanimous chorus of voices, all telling you that Nothing Fails is the classic on the new album. Contrary as I can be on occasions like these, I therefore stubbornly resisted its charms for ages. That much vaunted gospel choir? Pale re-tread of Like A Prayer, innit? Those lovely acoustic guitar pickings? Don't Tell Me Part Two. The sentiment? Gawd, how many more times do we need to know that she's in love with Guy Ritchie? We know!
But I could only miss the point for so long. This really is the out-and-out classic on the new album, goddammit. You were all quite right. It's a beautiful, touching heartfelt ballad which combines simplicity and depth with a touching sense of resolution, and the choir sounds bloody glorious. Cinq points.
5 points: Nothing Fails
4 points: Bad Girl
3 points: Human Nature
2 points: Nothing Really Matters
1 points: Nobody's Perfect
21 19 17 17 16
Jump to next part.
Tuesday, May 06, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 5.
Where Life Begins. (from Erotica)
I can still remember eyeing up the empty CD box in the racks at Selectadisc. Erotica? Deeper And Deeper? Bad Girl? Why's It So Hard? Toe-sucking on the back cover? Wa-hey! Why, this album is gonna be non-stop heaving pulsating raunchy rumpo from start to finish! Run that hot bath and light those scented candles!
Which, of course, it wasn't at all. All tease and no action, like so much mass-marketed "erotica". Except for this: an eye-popping ode to oral gratification which is, in truth, more comic than arousing. Can you make a fire without using wood, indeed. There has always been a thin line between "erotic" and just plain funny...and this is just plain funny.
Oh, and I think she might just have been listening to a few Soul II Soul records before recording this one...
Inside Of Me. (from Bedtime Stories)
...before going the whole hog and enlisting the help of Soul II Soul's producer (Nellee Hooper) for her next album, of course. "Sensuous" Madonna rides again, with breathy vocals courtesy of Baby Doll Madonna. I've already cracked the "thin but appealing" gag, haven't I? That's a pity.
Skin. (from Ray Of Light)
Still more Sensuousness, although considerably more disturbed and ambivalent this time round, with Madonna less the controller and more the victim. An Underworld-style rhythmic urgency is overlaid with typically lush William Orbit soundscapes, combined with a steadily building tension/intensity that really is most effective. Only let down by its unmemorable melody.
Amazing. (from Music)
The second William Orbit collaboration on Music, with a punchy, immensely satisfying widescreen production and an unusually (for Madonna) high reliance on a "rock" guitar sound. Terrific stuff.
Nobody Knows Me. (from American Life)
Yet more tedious lyrical self-obsession, you say? Yeah, whatever. But to be honest, I couldn't care less what the old girl's singing about when the, uh, Groove is as solid and as compelling as this. noodle has already commented on "the way she lets Mirwais go all unpleasantly Chicago 87", and this is a prime example, the track sounding like early rudimentary acid house (Tyree/Adonis/Phuture if we're being specific), before that trendy London lot got hold of it a few months later.
5 points: Amazing
4 points: Nobody Knows Me
3 points: Skin
2 points: Where Life Begins
1 points: Inside Of Me
18 16 15 14 12
Jump to next part.
Friday, May 02, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 4.
(Done in haste, in order to catch up from yesterday.)
Deeper And Deeper. (from Erotica)
The third track in a row on this album which, rhythmically, sounds like it might turn into Vogue at any minute. Maybe that's just me, though.
Oh! Bloody hell! She's actually singing Vogue now! I'd forgotten she did that!
Delicious stuff. Didn't Clivilles & Cole do the excellent remixes for this?
Don't Stop. (from Bedtime Stories)
Thin but appealing, like so many of us.
Candy Perfume Girl. (from Ray Of Light)
Oh, this does drag on. I can't be arsed with it at all right now. It's Friday afternoon, for crying out loud! I want Disco Madonna back!
I Deserve It. (from Music)
Instead of which, we get Heartfelt Sincere Madonna - possibly for the first time ever, with this patently genuine ode of love to "this guy" (oh yes, very clever). I have always found this song immensely touching - there's an unadorned simplicity about it, which might not have worked if the emotion hadn't been so palpably real.
Love Profusion. (from American Life)
Why was I having so much difficulty getting to grips with this album last week? Maybe it's the one-track-at-a-time approach which is helping to win me over at last. But why did I think it was so uniformly cold, sterile, hostile, dry? This track at least has a warm, beating heart to it - and hooray, it's a toe-tapper to boot.
5 points: Deeper And Deeper
4 points: I Deserve It
3 points: Love Profusion
2 points: Don't Stop
1 points: Candy Perfume Girl
Mike: 13 13 12 12 10
All: 15 13 13 11 10
Jump to next part.
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 3.
Oops, missed a day. Too busy with all that Installation Art (see below). What, you thought I just casually knocked that stuff out in five minutes flat? How little you understand the creative process.
I shall therefore try and make amends by doing two sets of Madonna tracks today. If I can.
By the way: a small number of you seem to be voting along each day. Which is cool. And to be encouraged, I think. If it continues, then I'll start tallying up collective totals. Because, you know, I'm inclusive like that. Got to keep fostering that sense of contact!
Bye Bye Baby. (from Erotica)
One of Madonna's slighter pleasures, I think it's fair to say. I have also developed a strong aversion to songs with "bye bye baby bye bye", or versions thereof, in their choruses. Too much prolonged exposure to Eurovision, you see - there's usually at least one every year. Or at least it feels that way. Still, at least she confines her rhyming to "your turn to cry", rather than adding the statutory "why why baby why why?". It's touches like this which make her a Great Artist.
Incurs penalty points for trotting out that tired old "yeah! wooh!" sample from Lyn Collins' Think, which we'd all got sick to death of four years earlier.
I'd Rather Be Your Lover. (from Bedtime Stories)
This slips by pleasantly but unmemorably, until the fantastic Me'Shell NdegéOcello shows up halfway through with a guest rap (she was signed to Madonna's Maverick label at the time, so a little cross-promotion was clearly in order). After her departure, the track reverts to tuneful-but-dullish type. Left with a sense of post-Me'Shell elevation, one does then feel more charitably towards it, however.
A much better sample, as well: Lou Donaldson's Blue Note jazz cover of the Isley Brothers' It's Your Thing, which I possess in its original format on one of those endless cheapo Blue Note compilation jobbies that show up in everyone's collections sooner or later.
Me'Shell NdegéOcello, though! God, she should have been a star. Ever heard her 1996 album Peace Beyond Passion? Oh, it's just marvellous.
Ray Of Light. (from Ray Of Light)
You don't need me to tell you what a classic this is, do you? No, thought not. Absolutely one of the very best things Madonna has ever done, ever ever ever ever ever. All further words are quite superfluous.
Runaway Lover. (from Music)
If I were the DJ at the Madonna Fan Club Convention Disco, then I would be well advised to follow Ray Of Light with this toe-tappin' choon - one of the two remaining Madonna/William Orbit collaborations on this Mirwais-dominated album (unless you also count American Pie, but we'll get to that later). Not much of a song - but, y'know, lovely textures and all that. We are rather suffering from Third Track Substance Deficiency, though.
I'm So Stupid. (from American Life)
But not any more. Bring on the Substance! Jeez, could she make this any more direct? The aural equivalent of Madonna (in her Patty Hearst/Wolfie Smith garb, natch) reaching out, grabbing you by the throat, maintaining direct, unblinking eye contact from an inch away, and telling you exactly how she feels about the way she used to live. The self-criticism on Ray Of Light seems so oblique, so soft, when compared to this. She was stupid, OK? Got that? Got that? The only one of these five tracks which completely held all my attention from start to finish.
5 points: Ray Of Light
4 points: I'm So Stupid
3 points: Runaway Lover
2 points: I'd Rather Be Your Lover
1 points: Bye Bye Baby
11 11 9 9 5
Jump to next part.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 2.
Fever. (from Erotica)
From killer (the opening title track) to filler, you say? Another pale re-tread/crass reduction of a recent smash hit, you say? And who needs to hear yet another cover version of Peggy Lee's over-played classic, anyway? Well, although I see where you're coming from (and one does indeed spend the entire duration of the track half-waiting for it to lurch completely over into Vogue), I think you're being unfair. It's an obvious give-the-punters-what-they-want crowd-pleaser, but it still shimmers and sashays along quite delightfully, if inconsequentially. Besides, I like a bit of Inconsequential Disco Fluff Madonna from time to time. I'm only sorry that she doesn't come out to play anymore.
Secret. (from Bedtime Stories)
It didn't all start with Don't Tell Me, you know: this serves as a timely reminder that there has always been a Softly Strummed Acoustic Guitar Element to Madonna's music. Simple falling-in-love sentiments, expressed in a repeated four-chord descending progression that could have descended from heaven. I could listen to that progression all afternoon. Aah.
Swim. (from Ray Of Light)
Aha. Eight tracks into our Project, and we hit our first comparative dud. Ponderous, half-baked, cod-spiritual, pseudo-meaningful twaddle about sin and redemption, with Madge detailing some of the wickednesses of our sorry world (at least, the ones where teachers rhyme with preachers) and hinting at something of a nascent Messiah complex into the bargain. ("I can't carry these sins on my back, don't wanna carry anymore.") My, but this drags. And hold up, isn't that a New Age Flute creeping into the mix? Irredeemable.
Impressive Instant. (from Music)
...whereas Impressive Instant, despite some equally barmy pseudo-cosmic lyrics, redeems itself by virtue of being about absolutely nothing at all. Mutant phreekazoid disco par excellence, with Madge's voice all chopped up, vocoderised and put back together again. Great effect. If only Mirwais could have been persuaded to put the vocoder back in the box afterwards.
Hollywood. (from American Life)
In which, having largely de-camped from London back to L.A. last year, Madonna wastes no time in sticking the boot into the place. This is no straightforward diatribe, mind - you can feel the lure of the place tugging her back, even as she attempts to trash it. ("I tried to leave it but I never could.") Recognising Hollywood as a place whose vacuous yet heady delights can ultimately render you neutered ("I lost my reputation, bad and good" - now ain't that the truth?), even Madonna's voice ends up neutered by the end of the track, electronically treated so that it gradually slips into an alarmingly realistic male register. Bewildering, contradictory and altogether very strange.
5 points: Secret
4 points: Hollywood
3 points: Impressive Instant
2 points: Fever
1 points: Swim
9 6 6 5 4
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Tuesday, April 29, 2003
The Which Is The Best Madonna Album? Project - Track 1.
OK, so let's work our way through the last five Madonna albums, track by track, and settle this burning question once and for all. (Obviously, I'm going no further back than Erotica, as Like A Prayer would have walked the entire contest. Also, I don't have any of the earlier albums on CD. Also, listening to 55 Madonna tracks in close succession is a big enough undertaking as it is.)
Erotica. (from Erotica)
At the time of its release - with Madonna still riding high on the massed critical consensus generated by Like A Prayer, the Blonde Ambition tour, The Immaculate Collection greatest hits set and the stunning videos for Vogue and Justify My Love, the Erotica single felt like a let-down. We thought she was an Artist! We thought she could "do" any theme she liked, and then move on swiftly to the next incarnation! We thought she'd already done the pervy shag-mistress bit with Justify My Love! This felt like a re-tread; a crass reduction of Justify My Love in both musical style and lyrical subject-matter. Stop droning on about sex the whole time, woman!, we cried.
However: thirteen years on, and separated from its original context, Erotica sounds great. Lush and sinuous and swirling and faintly menacing, with prescient trip-hoppy stylings (before anyone had coined the term) that haven't dated a bit. How harsh we all were to the poor love.
Survival. (from Bedtime Stories)
In stark contrast: a bright, breezy, irresistable piece of light melodic pop, in which we can also see the first signs that Madonna is going to start singing less about universal themes, and more about personal themes. Possibly the first Madonna track which is strictly all about Madonna, and not about you or me. There were to be many, many more.
Drowned World/Substitute for Love. (from Ray Of Light)
And here's a prime example. Where Survival was playfully defiant, Drowned World is reflective - self-critical, even. Now there's a first. In essence: I've grown up, my priorities have changed, I've finally realised what's truly important and what's merely illusory. Dramatic, startling, moving. If only she had left the self-analysis right there.
Oh, and the music? Sonically gorgeous, with all sorts of inventive little noises trickling into the mix, courtesy of William Orbit's stunning production. An statement-of-intent overture for the all-new Spiritual Earth Mother Madonna. Her critical and commercial revival started here.
Music. (from Music)
Where Erotica pre-dated trip-hop, so Music pre-dates electroclash. Stark, stripped-down, and once again not at all what we were expecting. She's still one jump ahead of the game. Also her most unabashed "git your ass on that dancefloor and party" anthem in years. We're back in the disco at last! Hurrah!
American Life. (from American Life)
Even more stark, even more stripped-down, and only not what we were expecting because, frankly, we were expecting something rather more unexpected than this. Inspiring more accusations of being another unimaginative reduction/re-tread (and the stylistic similarities with Music are indeed undeniable), this is by turns awkward, stroppy, pissed-off, cryptic, confusing, mocking, self-obsessed and just plain daft. As album openers, Erotica said "Let's indulge ourselves" - Survival said, "I'm still here and I'm still smiling" - Drowned World said "This is the new me" - Music said "Let's all party" - and American Life says, flatly, "F**k it".
How to put five such strong and different songs in order then? Let's at least try...
5 points: Drowned World/Substitute For Love
4 points: Survival
3 points: Music
2 points: Erotica
1 points: American Life
5 4 3 2 1
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