If all you know about Madonna's current efforts is what you've read in the gossip columns, odds are that you're expecting her new album to be the raciest thing to hit records stores since 2 Live Crew -- a sort of "Nastier Than Any Wanna-Be."
It's no wonder you'd get that idea, either, what with all these stories about Madonna's shocking-this and scandalous-that. Starting with the rumors of kinky couplings in "Sex," her book of impure thoughts and naughty pictures, Madonna was painted as a lady with but one thing on her mind: S-E-X. From there, the brouhaha over her stag-film-style video for the single "Erotica" and her clothing-optional photo spreads for Vanity Fair and the French edition of Elle were just icing on the cake. Madonna, apparently, is not only shameless, but relentless.
All of which has no doubt left you wondering: Is her new album really that likely to shock us?
Probably so -- but not for the reason you'd expect. Because at root, what seems most surprising about the songs on "Erotica" (Maverick/Sire 45031, arriving in record stores Tuesday) is that they find Madonna lusting for love, not panting after sex.
Mind you, that's not to say she comes across as an innocent in the first blush of romance. Indeed, if there's any blushing to be done here, it's likely to be on the listener's part. But even though a couple of songs allude to activities not easily described in a family newspaper, the vast majority -- 11 out of 14 -- stress matters of the heart over any base desires.
Bass desires are another matter, as the sound Madonna offers on "Erotica" takes most of its cues from the bottom-heavy boom of contemporary dance music. Whether working with Shep Pettibone (the house music mastermind who gave "Vogue" its stylish synth groove) or Andre Betts (whose hip-hop remix of "Justify My Love" was hotter than its banned-by-MTV video), the sound Madonna goes after is gloriously physical, so rhythmically insistent that even the slow songs seem hot-wired to the listener's hips.
When applied to conventional club fodder, like the explosive, exultant "Deeper and Deeper" or dark, rumbling "Thief of Hearts," the result is as slick and successful as the best of Madonna's dance singles. But it's when she and her co-producers push beyond the expected -- as with the dense, gimmicky groove of "Bye Bye Baby," or her sassy, house-style remake of "Fever" -- that the album really heats up, providing a sound that is body-conscious in the best sense of the term.
Even so, it's a fair bet that the album's other kind of body-consciousness -- Madonna's sex songs -- will end up getting the most press. One, of course, is the current single, and its catalog of kink has already raised its share of eyebrows, while Betts' playful poke at boastful, superstud rappers, "Did You Do It?," is raunchy enough to have earned the album its "Parental Guidance" warning sticker. (A "clean" version of "Erotica," without "Did You Do It?," will also be available).
Then there's "Where Life Begins," in which Madonna promises to teach us "a different kind of kiss." What kind is that, you ask? Well, let's just say you can't do it to a man, and leave it at that. Steamy stuff, to be sure, yet so completely couched in double-entendres that there's not a bleep-able word on the track.
Pity the poor parent who has to explain this one to Junior.
Such unbridled sensuality is only part of the picture Madonna paints; far more telling is "Bad Girl," a slow, sorrowful look at the sort of woman who uses drunken debauchery as a mask for her pain. Deftly sketched, it shows the other side of the stereotypical good-time girl, and its chorus -- "Bad girl, drunk by 6/Kissing someone else's lips" -- is as sobering as it is sad. Simply hearing the quaver in her voice as she insists "You'll always be my baby" is enough to break any listener's heart.
This is hardly a celebration of loose living, and given the anything-goes image Madonna has cultivated in recent months, it may seem somewhat out of character for the singer. Look closer, though, and the message behind "Bad Girl" fits quite nicely with the rest of the album. Because as much as the single "Erotica" may insist that "There's a certain satisfaction/In a little bit of pain," Madonna understands that the playful punishment of S&M; seems trifling when compared to the heart-rending anguish of a bad relationship. And that kind of pain she doesn't need.
Nor does she have much use for those who would put limits on whom (much less how) any of us should be allowed to love. That message resonates through "In This Life," an elegy to the friends Madonna has lost to AIDS that finds the singer wondering bitterly, "Who determines, who knows best?/Is there a lesson I'm supposed to learn?" It's an immensely touching performance, and not just because of what the song has to say; Madonna's passionate yet understated performance is a masterpiece of ballad-singing, and Jeremy Lubbock's lush orchestration only heightens the song's emotional impact.
By striking this balance between sensual satisfaction and emotional turmoil, "Erotica" ends up giving a far truer sense of what love entails. And in that sense, the album proves that the singer is more than just a world-class tease. Because a flirt only promises -- Madonna delivers.