It isn't quite fair to call Madonna's "Bedtime Stories" (Maverick/Sire 45767, arriving in stores today) a comeback album. After all, you can't come back unless you've been away, and Madonna's reign is far from over.
Lord knows, there are plenty of people in the press who seem to wish it was. Entertainment Weekly, for example, has repeatedly insisted that Madonna is finished, while numerous other pop-culture pundits have pronounced that America long ago lost its patience with her sexually-charged shenanigans.
Yet despite the drubbing she took for her "Sex" book and the brickbats she caught with the film "Body of Evidence," Madonna remains a potent force. Although "Erotica," her last album, was widely declared a disappointment, it nonetheless sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S. -- pretty healthy sales for a flop. Moreover, her last single, "I'll Remember," spent some 24 weeks on the charts, making it one of the biggest hits of her career.
Given the quick start she's had with her current single, "Secret," it seems a reasonable bet that "Bedtime Stories" will be equally successful. It isn't just that the album generally avoids the sort of hackles-raising fare that made "Erotica" such tough going; "Bedtime Stories" is a lot more listener-friendly than Madonna's past few albums.
In fact, it seems remarkably close in spirit to the singer's first album, emphasizing dance grooves and pop melodies over genre exercises and conceptual statements.
There's almost a nostalgic quality to the "Get up on the dance floor" insistence of "Don't Stop," or the innocent romance and gently cascading melody of "Take a Bow." Listening to them is a bit like being transported back to the early days of Madonna's ascent, before her sexuality and celebrity became the focus of most reviews.
That's not to say she avoids those topics on this album -- anything but. "Human Nature" deals quite explicitly with the media frenzies she's endured, and the contempt she feels for her critics. "Oops, I didn't know I couldn't talk about sex," she sings, her voice dripping sarcasm. "Oops, I didn't know I couldn't speak my mind." Could it be a coincidence that the album's only profanity pops up in the chorus of this song?
As much as Madonna might insist she's "not sorry," neither does she dwell on the issue. Skip past "Human Nature," and the closest thing you'll find to career commentary is "Survival," a sweetly funky number in which Ms. M. evokes past hits ("I'm gonna be living to tell . . .") to make the point that her life can be summed up in four words: "No risk no glory."
A fairly apt credo, and one that clearly applies to this album -- although not in the way you might think. "Bedtime Stories" may not have much in the way of scandalous content, but that doesn't mean Madonna isn't taking chances anyway. It's just that this time around, her daring has more to do with music than lyrics.
Most of "Bedtime Stories" was recorded with Dallas Austin, Babyface or Nellie Hooper, three of the hottest writers and producers in R&B; today. Yet "Bedtime Stories" is not an R&B; album.
Not only does Madonna make no attempt to reinvent herself as a soul singer, but she ensures that these songs sound more like her than they do her collaborators.
Considering the success these three have enjoyed individually, you might think Madonna was limiting her accessibility by diluting their input. Instead, the results almost suggest the opposite.
"Forbidden Love," for instance, has precisely the sort of sultry groove you'd expect from a Babyface love ballad, yet Madonna takes the song in an entirely unexpected direction, leavening the haunting, melancholy chorus with a bright, tuneful bridge that brings the song sharply into focus. Likewise, though "Inside of Me" boasts the throbbing bass and jazzy keyboards that come with most of Hooper's productions, what you really notice about the song is Madonna's breathy vocal, which makes the melody as quietly memorable as a lover's whisper.
If anything, her singing is the album's greatest strength. Madonna uses every trick in her repertoire -- from the husky alto of "Secret" to the almost girlish lightness she brings to the samba-inflected "Love Tried to Welcome Me."
Add in the soulful sass of "I'd Rather Be Your Lover," a tasty bit of retro-funk featuring a guest rap by Me'Shell NdegeOcello, and "Bedtime Stories" turns in some of the strongest performances of Madonna's career.
"Madonna Sings Well" -- bet you don't see that headline in the tabloids any time soon.
To hear excerpts from Madonna's "Bedtime Stories," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6229 after you hear the greeting.