Music

Just when we've put Madonna in another box — one labeled "Introspective Celebrity Mom Who Doesn't Want to Be an Icon Anymore but Can't Help Herself" — the forty-two-year-old reverts to pleasure girl on the punk-funk dance floor, partying with the break dancers, the queers, the addicts and insomniacs. It's been eighteen woozy years since Madonna dropped "Everybody"; with "Music," the lead track off her thirteenth album, she looks back at that up-for-grabs, early-Eighties era, when the only freaks who could program electro beats for the street were Germans, B boys or near-transvestites. "Music makes the people come together," she cries, as if her life and ours still depended on it.

Unlike Ray of Light's pristine inner-ear landscapes, Music is dirty, casually urgent, as if Madonna walked into the studio, got on the mike and let the machines bump. Check the improvisational, silly surge of "Impressive Instant," which first roars like a rock rocket ship, then purrs while a digitally tweaked Ms. Ciccone squeaks, "I like to singy singy singy/Like a bird on a wingy wingy wingy."

Music embodies that moment when destiny shoots us into the unknown. You thought Madonna was calculating, but here she's never been more instinctive. "This guy was meant for me," she prays in the ballad "I Deserve It," dropping her guard, clearly portraying Guy Ritchie, her newborn's father. She isn't painting a fairy-tale romance: "Amazing" palpitates with passionate ambivalence, while "Nobody's Perfect" admits and aurally embodies major fuck-ups. But she's still devoted to love.

Music does all this with Madonna's most radical sonics yet. William Orbit makes "Amazing" live up to its title by conjuring an even sassier spin on the gurgling grooviness of "Beautiful Stranger." And the six cuts co-produced with French synth weirdo Mirwais madly reference the past while achieving intimate, futurist pop. Her closely miked voice, recorded with minimal sweetening, abandons her recent Evita-schooled operatics for a spontaneous yelp that circles back to her club-belter beginnings. "What It Feels Like for a Girl" clinches it with a feminist anthem that's as musically gentle as it is lyrically barbed. "When you're trying hard to be your best," she croons as the voice of social authority, "could you be a little less?" The inability to do just that is what makes her matter yet again; there's still more to Madonna.