ROCK / Sex bomb in LP shock

IN THE midst of all the mucky book brouhaha, you could be forgiven for not noticing that Madonna has a new album out. It would be a shame if Erotica (Maverick/Sire) got trampled in the multi-media marketing stampede, because it is a very fine piece of work, probably her best. If you forget the Dick Tracy spin- off Breathless, a clear case of Beatty-ing around the bush, it is still possible to plot her five albums of new songs as a rising curve.

After her superb retrospective, The Immaculate Collection, Madonna would have been entitled to rest on her laurels; stand for mayor, perhaps play a little golf. Instead she ensconced herself in a New York penthouse recording suite with Shep Pettibone, producer of 'Vogue'. The songs they recorded are done up, not like the dog's dinner the producer's name suggests, but in a classy and captivating ensemble of dance-floor textures, often echoing the jazzy subtleties of prime Soul II Soul and Massive Attack. Over this blend of sumptuousness and sparsity, Madonna does what she is least famous for - she sings.

Whether her voice has actually improved, or the decision to stop coating it in layers of cotton wool has given her the confidence to sing out more, she has never sounded better. The pencil marks at the top and bottom limits of her comfortable range have been casually but thoroughly erased - a few years ago the prospect of Madonna doing Peggy Lee's 'Fever' would have prompted some unease, but now this most oft- raised of standards flutters fresh and crisp in a pure disco-breeze.

Her writing too, is in good shape. For all her admirable craftiness and less likeable narcissism, Madonna has never lost the knack of writing simple, direct pop songs that can touch millions of people in a perfectly genuine way, and this record pops at the seams with them.

Up-tempo, there's the 'Papa Don't Preach'-ish 'Bad Girl', the jaunty, ironically Kylie-esque 'Deeper and Deeper', and the absurd Shirelles-meet-Vera- Duckworth 'Thief of Hearts'. But the down-tempo numbers are the best. On the low-down and saucy 'Where Life Begins' she comes on like a feminist Barry White, a million miles from the seaside postcard of 'Hanky Panky'. And the concluding 'Secret Garden' is one of her finest songs: sinuous, plaintive, and daring, not just sartorially or ideologically but musically.

The title Erotica is somewhat misleading. For all the cheesy breathiness of the current single, there is not much here that warrants a brown-paper wrapper. The only thing that does is the one song that really grates. 'Did You Do It?' hardly features Madonna: it's just two dull rappers bragging unedifyingly about what may have happened in the back of a car. Slotting this in after a moving Aids lament was obviously meant to be provocative, but it spoils the flow and provokes only boredom. Purists are advised to seek out the 'young person's version' of the album, which omits it. But 75 minutes is a long time to fill with popular music, as anyone who has sat through the new Prince album will know, and one lapse in taste can be excused. For, unlike her little purple peer, Madonna has managed, against all the self-stacked odds, not to disappear up her own libido.

'Erotica' is out now (WX 491).