Given the cold shoulder Madonna's 2003 album American Life received by critics and audiences alike -- it may have gone platinum, but apart from the Bond theme “Die Another Day,” released in advance of the album, it generated no new Top Ten singles (in fact, its title track barely cracked the Top 40) -- it's hard not to read its 2005 follow-up, Confessions on a Dance Floor, as a back-to-basics move of sorts: after a stumble, she's returning to her roots, namely the discos and clubs where she launched her career in the early '80s. It's not just that she's returning to dance music -- in a way, she's been making hardcore dance albums ever since 1998's Ray of Light, her first full-on flirtation with electronica -- but that she's revamping and updating disco on Confessions instead of pursuing a bolder direction. While it's true to a certain extent that contemporary dance music is still recycling and reinventing these songs -- besides, anything '80s is in vogue in 2005 -- coming from Madonna, it sounds like a retreat, an inadvertent apology that she's no longer on the cutting edge, or at least an admission that she's inching ever closer to 50. And no matter how she may disguise it beneath glistening layers of synths, or by sequencing the album as a nonstop party, Confessions on a Dance Floor is the first album where Madonna seems like a veteran musician. Not only is there a sense of conscious craft to the album, in how the sounds and the songs segue together, but in how it explicitly references the past -- both her own and club music in the larger sense -- the music seems disassociated from the present; Madonna is reworking familiar territory, not pushing forward, in a manner not dissimilar to how her former opening act the Beastie Boys returned to old-school rap on their defiantly old-fashioned 2004 album To the 5 Boroughs.
But where the Beasties are buoyed by their camaraderie, Madonna has always been a stubborn individual, working well with collaborators but always, without question, existing on her own terms, and this obstinate nature is calcifying slightly into isolation on Confessions. There's no emotional hook in the music, either in its icy surface or in the lyrics, and the hard-headed intention to deliver a hardcore dance album means that this feels cold and calculated, never warm or infectious. Of course, Madonna has always been calculated in her career, often to great effect, and this calculation does pay some dividends here. Taken on a purely sonic level, Confessions on a Dance Floor does its job: with the assistance of co-producer Stuart Price (Bloodshy & Avant produce two tracks, Mirwais produces one, while another was originally produced by Anders Bagge and Peer Astrom), she not only maintains the mood, but keeps the music moving nicely, never letting one track linger any longer than necessary. This is shimmering music falling just short of sexy, yet it's alluring enough on the surface to make for a perfect soundtrack for pitch-black nights. That's what the album was designed to do, and it works well on that level. It works well as a whole, but as a collection of individual tracks it falls apart, since there is a distinct lack of melodic or lyrical hooks. But Confessions wasn't intended to be pop music -- as the title makes clear, it was made for the dance clubs or, in other words, Madonna's core audience, who will surely be pleased by this sleek slice of style. But the fact that she's making music just for her core audience, not for the mass audience that she's had for 20 years, is yet another indication that Madge is slyly, slowly settling into her new status as a veteran (or perhaps as a survivor), and while she succeeds rather handsomely on those modest terms, it's more than a little odd to hear Madonna scaling back her ambition and settling for less rather than hungering for more.