Maverick/Warner Bros. On her last album, "I'm Breathless," Madonna was playing a cartoon character, Breathless Mahoney. On much of "Erotica," she's more or less playing another one: Cruella DeVille. And if she doesn't scare you, no tarty thing will.
For the first time, the crown dominatrix of pop has taken the brassy, bratty persona flayed across the screen in the quasi-docu "Truth or Dare" and put it on record, spending less time begging to be loved and more just dishing, dissing and making dirty jokes, dancing all the distasteful while.
"This is not a love song--I'd like to hurt you," she coos in the brushoff song "Bye Bye Baby." "Only the one that hurts you can make you feel better," she promises in the title song. "Bitch!" she mutters as an epithet five times in "Thief of Hearts," which some might see as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
The tune most certain to be snickered about by millions is "Where Life Begins," an explicit tribute to cunnilingus, previously established as a favored topic of conversation in the famous Rolling Stone interview by Carrie Fisher. It might have had a shot at being smuttily amusing in a Playboy's Party Jokes kinda way if Madonna didn't have to beat each punch line to death for us rubes. Same for the title single, which is depressingly literal on the subject of sadomasochism. Entendre, en schm endre, self-proclaimed "social mores"-buster Madonna seems to say.
When she removes tongue from cheek and gets earnest, things don't necessarily get more palatable. Despite having crafted some of the best singles of the '80s, and despite being a genuine wit, Madonna can tend toward terribly banal rhymes. Representative mixed-metaphor sample: "Rain is what the thunder brings / For the first time I can hear my heart sing . . . I'll wait for the sun till I feel your rain." This from someone who publicly mocked Kevin Costner for saying "neat."
The thing is, "Erotica" often sounds neat, with fine disco-cum-rave grooves courtesy producer-writers Shep Pettibone and Andre Betts. Two songs rank with Madonna's best: "Secret Garden," for Betts' jazzy track, and "Bad Girl," a tortured ballad that trades in mixed emotions instead of purely catty or cornball ones.
Somewhere, this stuff is giving Camille Paglia goosebumps. Most of the rest of us may have trouble wading through the neurotica.