REVIEW / Stripped down to basics: Giles Smith takes a peek at Erotica, Madonna's new album - Plus the rest of the week's new albums

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The Independent Culture
FIRST of all, Erotica is not the accompanying soundtrack for Sex, Madonna's book of saucy snaps. (Heaven knows what the soundtrack for Sex would sound like, but it's unlikely you could fit it on a single CD.) It doesn't come, as the book will, in some sort of thrilling, heat-sealed spacesuit, calculated to deny browsers while cajoling their curiosity. Nevertheless, it's still something of a rude shock to have it in your hands. It's sometimes hard to remember this, what with all the skin shots, the movie roles, the paparazzi mayhem, all the exposure: but, just occasionally, Madonna makes a record.

This is virtually the sole remaining area of Madonna's life which she hasn't regularly and graphically opened up about; so, weirdly, if you want to have a prurient interest in Madonna, her music is about the only one left. How does she do it in the studio? What does she get up to in there? Interestingly, in In Bed With Madonna, the star's show-it-and-be-damned film documentary, the cameras followed her everywhere - except into a recording studio. Meanwhile, Madonna now sits elsewhere, electing to dwell exclusively in the celebrity ether into which her records have launched her, barely referring to them, otherwise occupied.

Which wouldn't matter, if Erotica wasn't up to much. In fact, it reveals that, unlike Jackson and Prince and Springsteen and the rest of her established, major league competition, Madonna's albums are still getting better each time. (This thesis involves stepping quietly round 1990's I'm Breathless, but that was Madonna in her film role as Dick Tracy's moll and can be lightly ditched.)

Still, the hype around Sex is gigantic: for the first time in publishing history, a book may turn out to be louder than a record. Sex has reared its ugly head, and those who don't find the album obscured may at least be tempted to twin the projects: you've read the book - now find 14 different applications for the CD.

But anyone hoping to hear Anais Nin set to a suggestive drum machine is going to be sorely disappointed. For Madonna has made a dance album and one which, for the most part, either kicks free from or makes light of the self-involvement which surrounds her in most of her other roles. 'Rain' is as close to the Madonna of Like A Prayer as this album comes, a big and solemn ballad which pleads for release as a single more openly than most of the tracks around it. (The backwards tom-toms and the rhythmic synthesiser trick, like the noise of water in a pipe, seem, incidentally, to be lifted directly from Scritti Politti's 'Perfect Way' on the Cupid and Psyche '85 album. The sleeve notes conscientiously credit Kool & the Gang for a portion sampled on the title track, but say nothing about this.)

But most of the rest is built around that widely-used, distorted drum sample which sounds like someone clubbing a large box of cereal with a stick. The slinkier numbers lope along on the back of bleary saxophones and casually tapped piano figures. Where most pop stars choose to sing about sex as if they had just invented it, Madonna gives us a cover version of 'Fever'(1956). And on the best track, 'Deeper and Deeper', synthesisers blare, a Spanish guitar and some castanets spill in from nowhere and Madonna unwinds her voice through an oddly twisting chorus melody.

Erotica is the most satisfying setting she has yet found for that voice. We're used to hearing it doubled and tripled, thickened with repetitions of itself and then pasted in a shiny layer across the top of the song. Here, you generally hear her sing unsupported - a bold idea, given that, on her earliest recordings, Madonna sounded like someone with little natural aptitude supplemented by whole tanks of ambition. You could hear the effort tugging the throat so forcefully, the voice went thin and hard. Here, isolated against the backing, it somehow takes on a spotlit, cabaret feel.

The box bears the now traditional sticker warning against (or promising, depending on your stance) 'language that some people might find offensive', though a thorough scan of the lyrics printed inside reveals this to be a false alarm. True, the track 'Waiting' comes back towards the end of the album re-styled as a rap in which Mark Goodman and Dave Murphy quiz each other about some sex in the back of a car, but they never really come close to the bone, as it were.

Then again, there's also 'Where Life Begins': the title suggests something anthemic, the sort of song Whitney Houston might sing, prior to an Olympics. In fact, this is Madonna's ode to cunnilingus - except she puts it better. 'A lot of people talk about / Dining in and eating out.' Unlike Sex, Erotica's chief weapon is innuendo - and they don't yet have to put stickers on for that.

(Photograph omitted)

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