In 1985, Madonna’s navel ruled the world. That year — which opened with “Like a Virgin” perched at Number One, and would later see “Crazy for You” knock “We Are the World” off the top of the charts — she boiled down her philosophy, her definitive worldview, to one phrase. It kicked off “Into the Groove,” perhaps her most sublime single ever (also the theme to Desperately Seeking Susan, still the only good movie she’s been in). Over the most Eighties-sounding synthesizers imaginable, she proclaimed, “And you can dance — for inspiration.”
Twenty years later, the world’s most famous Kabbalist has found other ways to seek enlightenment. But as Confessions on a Dance Floor illustrates, Madonna has never lost her faith in the power of the beat. Driven by kaleidoscopic, head-spinning production — primarily by Stuart Price, better known professionally as Les Rhythmes Digitales — Confessions comes on like an all-out disco inferno, and takes our girl Esther out of the English manors and yoga studios and back into the untamed club world where she made her name. This is an album designed for maximum volume. It’s all motion, action, speed. The tracks are constantly shifting, with dizzying layers of sounds and samples dropping in and out, skittering and whooshing across the speakers. Unlike the crystalline precision of latter-day Madonna discs like Ray of Light and Music, the sonic signature here is a powerhouse density — on tunes like “Future Lovers” and “Push,” it’s damn near psychedelic. Not only do the twelve songs all blend together like a ready-made DJ set, it’s as if they also come pre-remixed.
Confessions also provides a crash course in dance-music history; aside from the candy-coated Abba sample in the first single, “Hung Up,” there are fleeting quotes from the S.O.S. Band, the Tom Tom Club, the proto-electro novelty hit “Popcorn.” Mrs. Ritchie even nods to her own past, with melodic snippets from “Like a Prayer” and “Holiday” peeking through.
For Madonna, the quest for transcendence has always been closely linked to the ecstatic release of dancing. But where her previous efforts at claiming dance-floor supremacy have usually revolved around the subject of music itself (think “Everybody” or “Vogue” or “Music”), on Confessions she shifts her focus to empowerment and self-sufficiency. “I can take care of myself,” she sings on the throbbing “Sorry,” a sentiment restated on “Jump” as “I can make it alone.”
The only time the tempo drops is on Confession‘s centerpiece, “Isaac.” The song was reportedly inspired by the sixteenth-century mystic Yitzhak Luria, which Madonna denies; whatever the case, with its Hebrew chanting and Rabbinic, spoken-word commentary, it’s the disc’s most explicit nod to her spiritual practices. The galloping beat and cascading acoustic guitar loop create an intriguing dynamic, evoking both African and Eastern European music, but the lyrics are elusive. “All of your life has all been a test,” she solemnly intones, and then there’s something about “wrestling with your darkness” — like too much of Confessions, it’s too indirect to add up to much.
A few other songs hint at the lessons learned from her religious awakening but fall short of revelation. On “How High,” Madonna claims, “I spent my whole life wanting to be talked about,” and asks, “Will any of this matter?” only to conclude “I guess I deserve it.” The closing “Like It or Not” is intended as a bold declaration of independence, but its string of cliches feels lazy (“Sticks and stones may break my bones”? Madge, you can do better than that). On the other hand, her willingness to rhyme “New York” with “dork” on the spiraling “I Love New York” is a flash of the old Ciccone sass — the album would have benefited from more.
Madonna’s songwriting has always been her most underrated quality. But while Confessions absolutely hits its mark for disco functionality, its greatest strength is also its weakness. In the end, the songs blur together, relying on Price’s considerable production magic to create tension or distinctiveness.
Coming off her last album, the tepid American Life, the forty-seven-year-old mother of two wants to show that she can still stay up late. Confessions on a Dance Floor won’t stand the test of time like her glorious early club hits, but it proves its point. Like Rakim back in the day, Madonna can still move the crowd.