The back cover of Madonna’s latest album, “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” depicts a slinky white foot attached to a glimmering red stiletto heel, gilded with rhinestones and pointed to the sky like a shotgun. It’s an eerily apt image, this ruby slipper that accompanies our Dorothy through her strange, singular journey. On “Confessions,” the pop goddess finds her own sort of Oz, a kaleidoscopic paradise of seamless song, and takes us all along for the ride. For her millions of diehard fans, it’s a glimpse into the subconscious of a superstar — a candid, ego-eschewing mind-trip that helps make up for decades of hyper-sexual sneering and trashy tabloid feeding frenzies. For the rest of us, it’s sheer dance-floor Shangri-La, a celebration of the purifying, cathartic effects of rhythm and rhyme, of movement and music.
Indeed, there’s something sublimely spiritual about Madonna’s approach to the usual techno remonstrations on “Confessions.” “Hung Up,” the lead-off track and first single, infuses its superficially flimsy Abba sample and throwaway lyrics (“Every little thing that you say or do/ I’m hung up/ I’m hung up on you”) with head-bursting bass and clock-ticking ominousness. Even the repeated intonations of “Time goes by/ So slowly” suggest that the world’s hottest forty-seven year old is finally thinking about the big picture.
Yet “Hung Up” is only the tip of a much more substantive and subliminal iceberg. While the blatantly meta-theological decrees of “it’s all an illusion” (“Get Together”) or “nothing lasts forever” (“How High”) aren’t exactly Socrates’ last words, dig a little deeper, because not even the latest “Buddha Bar” mix can match the Zen-like hypnotism of the album’s best material. Madonna never needed this newfound lyrical insight to captivate an audience, anyway. On “Forbidden Love,” distant whale-call sound effects reverberate against Madonna’s own humbly soothing voice, as she transforms the oft-told Romeo-and-Juliet tale into a penetrating, empyreal entreaty for a love that cannot be. On “Future Lovers,” she gleefully plays the part of disco Charon, ferrying the listener into her dance-floor netherworld. “Forget your life,” she whispers, dominatrix-style.
Things lighten up a bit on “I Love New York,” Madonna’s oddly satirical paean to the city that launched her fame. Though her attempts at classic Yankee sass fall flat, her pointed assertion that “other places make me feel like a dork” is a tartly amusing aside in an album chock-full of “deep thoughts.” Price’s industrial-style sound effects of scraping metal and howling sirens work well against the techno-standard bleeps and blips and heart-pounding bass.
Yet it’s the unyielding religiosity of the controversial “Issac” that represents what “Confessions” is truly all about, namely, exploring the meaning of life through dance, rhythm and music. Over a bed of delicately-tapped tympanum and whirling violins, Madonna delivers some of her most mind-expanding yet cheesy lyrics (“Wrestle with your darkness/ Angels call your name”). Sure it’s over the top, but this is Madonna we’re talking about. How could you expect anything less?