Given that Ray of Light, Madonna's prior studio release, was both a big seller and the best-reviewed album of her career (its quality briefly forced all but the most obtuse critics to consider her an artist first and a cultural icon second, rather than the other way around), it's no surprise that she's returned to the electro-dance well a second time. But as Ms. Ciccone ought to know by now, revisiting the past is a good way of ensuring that you won't measure up to it -- which helps explain why Music feels like a step backward. Not that the disc is a catastrophe; our lady is too canny a packager for that. Instead it's a throwback to her thrift-store­chic days, when the vivacity of a few tracks helped compensate for the weaknesses of the rest.
The title cut represents the positive side of this equation. Forget the spiritual advice and guru-friendly mysticism on this go-around: "Music" sports an amusingly dorky spoken intro ("Hey, Mr. DJ, put a record on -- I want to dance with my baby") that bleeds directly into a spare groove overlaid with a vocoder query ("Do you like to... boogie-woogie?") that's the modern equivalent of Peter Frampton's talk-box. (Did he show her the way?) Then seconds later, the club cowgirl turns up atop a lyric the epic banality of which is on par with the words from "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)." Yet monstrously dumb though it is, the tune also happens to be catchy as hell -- just as "Lucky Star" and "Into the Groove" were.
Of course dopeyness goes only so far, and French producer Mirwais Ahmadzai pushes his luck via his compulsive use of the voice-synthesizing techniques that turned Cher into RoboCher a year or so ago. Although he gets away with the gimmick on the entertaining "Impressive Instant," which has a plethora of hooks and lotsa thump-thump, he craters in a big way with the dreadful "Nobody's Perfect," a midtempo piece that comes across like an audition tape for Mystery Science Theater 3000. But at least these goofs are memorable, unlike "I Deserve It" and "Don't Tell Me," two fairly bland excursions into drum-'n'-bass folk comparatively unmarked by Ahmadzai's fingerprints. Guess no one told the Big M that Lilith Fair is over.
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Not even William Orbit, who coproduced Ray of Light and worked on three of the ten numbers on hand, can fully jolt this beast to life: "Runaway Lover" and "Amazing" emerge as minor reworkings of his previous Madonna collaborations, and the concluding "Gone" is a strummy ballad overloaded with mock-philosophical ruminations, such as "Nothing equals nothing." But that's hardly the end of Madonna's world. Music probably won't win her more Grammys, but it'll keep her in the spotlight until her next project's ready for unveiling. And that's what really matters, right?