It was Madonna’s 47th birthday and she was seriously hung up. Fans had been waiting for over two years for new music, when a horse bucked our Lady Of The Manor right into an English hospital with a broken collarbone, hand and ribs. Going into fall of 2005, Madonna had something to prove. In the highs and lows of her career, 2003’s tense, folky American Life was a comedown from the successes of Ray Of Light and Music.
Those fans felt they’d allowed their queen her Indigo Girls moment and now they wanted classic Madonna dance jams. Rumors circulated about a single inspired by ABBA and then… SPLAT! Just weeks before she was to release her new single, she was busted up, drugged up and out of her usual control. The first thought was not really for Madonna… “Umm, is the album delayed?”
When the world finally heard the galloping “Hung Up,” they danced. As the first taste of Madonna’s collaboration with UK producer Stuart Price, the ABBA-sampling pop track was a blueprint for the album. Price had earned his bona fides as Madonna’s musical director on her previous two tours, and earlier in 2005 he garnered success with a seminal remix of The Killers’ “Mr Brightside.”
They started noodling with tunes on the Reinvention Tour and later set up shop in his tiny attic recording space in London to craft the huge sound of Confessions On A Dance Floor (released on November 11, 2005). The album’s sound is a dense, layered production, marked by lyrical repetition (time goes by so slowly, time goes by…) and lengthy instrumental sections. “Hung Up” — capped with a leotard-fetishizing video —was a worldwide hit (despite a more tepid showing at #7 on the US chart).
The album, released as a continuous mix, still sounds exhilarating ten years on. By now fans have memorized the multi-language apologies of second single “Sorry” that Madonna chants over what sounds like an interpolation of the “Frozen” opening. She actually had a few things to apologize for — like Swept Away —but the real earworm is the looped “I’ve heard it all before” hook. The track, which has elements of The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It,” also worked in a signature Stuart Price sound (at 2:44): that cracking noise, like a baseball hitting a bat, was also used on numerous of his productions, including his remix of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” Like much of Confessions, the recording swirls into a hurricane of sound that rises and falls before ending with classic Madonna strings.
My sisters and me
Each Madonna album has a track that is born of her DNA, no matter who’s producing it — think “Survival” on Bedtime Stories or “Nothing Really Matters” on Ray Of Light. Most of these songs mainline an essential positivity and optimism, also present on Confessions’ “Jump.” Opening with a synth line reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls,” the track plays out like a sequel to “Keep It Together.” It’s a fine addition to a long line of Madonna songs extolling both the power of family and her belief that you won’t get anywhere in life if you don’t take chances.
“I Love New York” has, however, proven to be polarizing. A complete rewrite of a song first heard in her tour documentary, I’m Going to Tell You A Secret, the arrangement captures the hugeness and urgency of the city that made Madonna a star. It sounds as if it was recorded in an arena; her vocals are swimming in the sound of rolling timpani drums, electric guitars and squizzy electronics. But “New York” has one glitch: the lyrics are hardcore raggedy, rhyming New York and dork, or a Suessian mad, sad and glad. If you accept the song as literal, it’s embarrassing, but if you roll with what was likely intended as a tongue-in-cheek lyric, it works.
In the evidence of its brilliance
“Future Lovers,” the only track produced by American Life’s now-maligned Mirwais, is nervily built on a sample of the ultimate disco statement: Donna Summers’ legendary “I Feel Love.” Each Madonna album needs a great spoken piece and “Future” delivers with a commentary on modern life. “Forget your problems… administration, bills, loans,” she purrs with perfect elocution, before the track lifts off into a slamming disco classic.
Equally mammoth is the arena-friendly “Get Together.” It’s a meta-pop moment, built on a sample of Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You,” which in turn was famously mashed up with Madonna’s “Holiday.” Like “Jump,” the lyric is full of hope — “do you believe that we can change the future?” and the stabbing synths (check 3:34) send the track into orbit. It’s completely uplifting and everything dance music should be.
This is who I am
All disco nights come to an end, and Confessions closes with the stunning manifesto “Like It Or Not.” Produced by Madonna with Bloodshy and Avant (aka two-thirds of Miike Snow), it sounds like an answer to the intense criticism she received for American Life and her views on the Iraq War. “This is who I am, you can like it or not,” she sings, “You can love me or leave me, ’cause I’m never gonna stop.” Monte Pittman, Madonna’s longtime guitarist, adds a sense of gravitas with the folky acoustic riff that brings Confessions to an elegant conclusion. When you get cranky with Madonna in 2015 for what she is or isn’t, think of this lyric, because the lady doesn’t give a shit.
In the years following Confessions, a few elements leap out. The album has a cohesive sound — her recent work, which features a cast of thousands, sounds more chaotic. Kylie Minogue liked the approach so much that she hired Price in 2010 to bring together disparate tracks she was gathering for her own Aphrodite.
Confessions is also rich in the expanse of styles its creator was able to bring to an up-tempo dance album. There’s so much emotional power in Madonna’s voice here, especially when she utilizes her lower, warmer register on songs like “Jump” or “Like It Or Not.” She turned 47 the day she fell off that horse, but nothing would stop her. A glitterball, a leotard, a simple wish to be happy. In 2005, Madonna was at the top of her game.