By Mark Guarino
A clock ticks at the beginning of Madonna’s newest album, “Confessions on a Dance Floor” (Warner Bros.). That’s weird. Does it mean that time is running out for the children’s author and British horse jumper to get nasty again, just like the time she wore conical bras onstage and paraded around with professional sleaze buckets like Dennis Rodman?
Unfortunately no. The clock ticks but it’s perfectly staid, like the majority of what follows. Reports of this album declared it would be Madonna’s return to her halcyon days in the early 1980s when she shocked and awed through crucifixes, rubber bracelets, strangely compelling undergarments, a helium singing voice and brilliant dance pop tunes that endure to this day.
The shift would make sense since — have you heard? — the ‘80s are back! Madonna represented the decade of dumb fun but once it burned out (thanks, Kurt), she discovered Oprah and Kabbalah and it all went south from there. Motherhood was not the worst that thing that happened to the former club queen — “Music,” her 2000 album of electric-folk gave the urban cowgirl the comeback she was worth. Yet when she followed it up with “American Life” in 2003, the most revolutionary stance she took was complaining about a life of lattés and Pilates and the rest of the world snoozed. Madonna had become Lisa Loeb, her talent for sexual provocation now the job of other late night club girls, from Peaches to Pink.
In stores this week, “Confessions” is a very seamless but sanitized dance album that never gets very wild. Again, Madonna hires the best producer money can buy. This time it’s Stuart Price, a British D.J. and remixer also known as Jacques Lu Cont. He dreams up warm sounds — pulsars, water drop beats, robotic clicks and clacks — while swirling them inside dramatic synthesizers and thumping beats. The sound becomes so incessant, there are no breaks between songs, so to create the effect you’re listening to one continual dance mix. There’s also the side effect that it sounds like all one long song and, as every D.J. knows, to keep the party going, the energy needs to build from high to higher.
As a dance album, this never gets very high. The highest point of “Confessions” is pushed to the front. Album opener “Hung Up” is a solid kiss-off of a song, with its strutting beat and wistful synthesizer hook borrowed from ABBA. The song is signature Madonna: the lyric drips true attitude and the hook won’t let you forget it.
From there, “Confessions” is cautious not to reveal too much. Despite the insistent push of the music, there is a sense that nothing will lead to release. The spiritual hodgepodge and other trappings of Madonna’s celebrity prevent that from ever happening. The result is a dance album you wish was just stripped to its beat or replaced with a different singer coming into the studio with a blank slate.
Consider this: There is nothing that’ll clear a dance floor faster than a rabbinical singer (Yitzhak Sinwani) singing in Hebrew over a picked acoustic guitar and wooden beat (“Isaac”). Or how about Madonna, her voice transformed to sound “futuristic,” listing reasons to hit the club: “Let’s forget your life/forget your problems/administration, bills and loans” (“Future Lovers”). To paraphrase Paris Hilton, that’s not hot.
On “I Love New York,” Price emulates the electro-rock of underground hipster favorites like LCD Soundsystem, but Madonna’s awful lyrics — “I don’t like cities but I like New York/Other places make me feel like a dork” — won’t get her any indie cred. Besides, a song with such post-9/11 sincerity sounds four years too late. Later, on “Push,” a song that wouldn’t exist without the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” hook, Madonna’s idea of a lyrical idea is rewriting Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.”
These days, the person doing Madonna better than Madonna is Gwen Stefani. Her cartoon image, teasing vocals and absurd lyrics are the essence of pure dance pop where the fun is in the immediacy and the accidental weirdness. Madonna’s dance floor homecoming lacks that kind of animation. It takes itself too seriously and, what is worse, the album’s sterile laboratory of computers drains away all the sex. On “Forbidden Love,” a ballad of pure goop, Madonna promises to “seal the destiny forever.” Take this grim album with it.