Picks and Pans Review: Erotica

updated 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Madonna

Forget trying to deal with a Madonna album simply as a musical phenomenon. Erotica, the 34-year-old singer's fifth album (not counting collections and sound tracks) and her first all-new release since Like a Prayer (1989), is just one facet of the 1992 product line of Madonna Inc., which encompasses music, video, films, fashion and, most notoriously, publishing. In October, MTV broadcast and then semibanned the video of the title song of Erotica, with the clip functioning as a coming-attractions trailer for the S&M imagery and polymorphous perversity of her coffee-table book, Sex. So is the new album anything more than the background music for Madonna's latest lucrative scandal?

The answer is a qualified yes. Erotica breaks little new ground, and it's tempting to criticize many of the songs as updates of earlier Madonna hits. ("Erotica" has been widely dismissed as a retread of "Justify My Love," the fanfare for the new, rough-trade Madonna of the '90s.) The dance-club arrangements and midtempo ballads rely on synthesized keyboards and bass, programmed percussion and drums, with a glossy overlay of multi-track vocals. But this familiar sound has some new wrinkles.

In the past, Madonna has used songwriters and producers like Jelly-bean Benitez, Nile Rodgers. Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard. For Erotica, she enlisted two top remixing artists, Shep Pettibone (who cowrote "Vogue") and André Betts (one of many collaborators on "Justify My Love"). They composed the basic tracks in the studio, and Madonna added the lyrics on top of the groove, going back and forth between girlish-vamp singing and rapping. (The sole exception is the best-forgotten cover of the torchy 1958 Peggy Lee hit "Fever.") The result doesn't exactly sound spontaneous, but the plasticine veneer of main older Madonna songs is absent here. The bass and drums are way up front, in your face, and a heavyweight reggae feeling gives the best songs an organic street swagger.

Still, there is no escaping the fact that Madonna's records represent the most conservative area of her creative output. "Bye Bye Baby," "Deeper and Deeper," "Thief of Hearts" and "Bad Girl" may all become hits, but in those songs you can find little of the manipulative mastery and provocativeness that make Madonna so fascinating. And her attempts at social statements, "Why's It So Hard" (about racial and sexual tolerance) and "In This Life" (about mourning the toll of AIDS) are weighed down by platitudes.

Something hypnotic and original does lurk on Erotica, and it emerges whenever Madonna adopts her current pet persona, Dita, which is also the name she uses in the text for Sex. (The name is borrowed from the German actress Dita Parlo, another blond siren, who appeared in a couple of classic French films.) Dita speaks in a deep, cracked, whisper-moan. She sounds terrifyingly experienced, only hall benign, and wholly sexual. "What wakes you up inside?" she asks. "...Will you let yourself go wild?" Dita dominates the throbbing ode to romantic anticipation on "Waiting," and cracks an ancient smile over the very funny double entendres about oral sex (and safe sex) on "Where Life Begins." Dita's voice is perhaps the closest we've yet gotten to Madonna herself—to her nerve, her power, her beauty and her undeniable sway over our collective dreams. (Maverick/Sire)

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