One thing about Madonna that everybody agrees on is her changeability. With each new project and passing fancy, she unveils yet another look or sound. It's almost as if there have been dozens of Madonnas over the years.
Just look at how much things have changed since her early days on the dance-club circuit. Her first single, "Everybody," used a thumping beat and a sing-song vocal to celebrate the way dance music brings people together. Now, 17 years later, her current single, "Music" uses a thumping beat and sing-song vocal to celebrate the way dance music brings people together.
But this time, she's wearing a cowboy hat!
Maybe that's oversimplifying things a bit, but the point remains: Madonna hasn't changed as much as her myth suggests. She started out as a dance pop artist, and with a few minor detours (hello, "Evita!"), she's remained one ever since.
No, what's significant about Madonna isn't that she changes with the times, but that she keeps up with them.
To understand the difference, compare her to the rock era's truest chameleon, David Bowie. Not only did Bowie consistently change his look, but he also kept reinventing himself musically, going from the folkie theatricality of "Space Oddity" to the glam rock of "Ziggy Stardust," and from the slick, Philly soul of "Young Americans" to the arty electronics of his Thin White Duke period. Even now, he can't keep still, bouncing from the rave-savvy rock of "Earthling" to retro-glam sound of "Hours ..." - a fairly radical stylistic shift.
Madonna, by contrast, has done little more than change production styles in the move from 1998's "Ray of Light" to her current release, "Music" (Maverick 47598, arriving in stores today).
But she has tweaked her sound and changed her frame of reference enough to make this album seem just as fresh and with-it as her last one.
Funny thing is, Madonna does so without actually going after a cutting edge club sound. Just as "Ray of Light" evoked electronica without actually committing to trance beats or ambient dub abstractions, "Music" touches on the disco nouveau sound of French acts like Daft Punk while somehow sidestepping the hardcore dance beats Daft Punk would have employed.
But that's as it should be. Madonna, remember, is a pop artist, first and foremost. If she wants to show how hip she can be, she'll release a single like the club version of "Music" (Maverick 44909), offering more than an hour of remixes, including versions by such hipsters as house maven Victor Calderone and neo-soulsters Groove Armada.
For her album, however, Madonna doesn't need 12-minute exercises in working the groove. Here, the emphasis is on the tune, with the club touches - deep-thumping bass, stabbing synths, tinny drum machines - used only to add flavor and momentum.
Much of the musical vocabulary will be familiar to Daft Punk fans; "Impressive Instant," for instance, opens with a bass fade-in straight out of that group's "Da Funk." Madonna and producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, also make use of the vocoder, a sort of voice synthesizer that was popularized by the late Roger Troutman on such singles as Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce" and 2Pac's "California Love."
Yet even as she embraces this new groove, Madonna understands that pop fans like a little variety on their albums. So in addition to throbbingly insistent tracks like the title tune and "Runaway Lover," Madonna also includes a smattering of semi-acoustic ballads.
"I Deserve It," sounds almost like a Red Hot Chili Peppers tune, as Madonna croons a melancholy melody over a strummed acoustic guitar. But even here, Madonna and Ahmadzai refuse to play it straight, supporting the guitar on "I Deserve It" with obviously mechanical drum machine beats, and using a digital sampler to chop up the strummed riff that opens "Don't Tell Me."
Nor has Madonna completely left her "Ray of Light" sound behind, as "Amazing" - recorded with "Ray of Light" collaborator William Orbit - evokes a similar blend of heavy beats and light psychedelia. "What It Feels Like for a Girl," on the other hand, offers a sly update on the approach, maintaining a similar sense of instrumental texture while relying on a far funkier drum track.
But that's how Madonna has always managed change. And because she's more interested in updating her approach than in reinventing her sound, her albums - like "Music" itself - are far more entertaining and accessible than the truly cutting-edge stuff.
Sun score: ***