MADONNA, “Bedtime Stories” ( Sire ) (** 1/2)

It’s Darwinism above morality once more for Madonna: “I’ll never be an angel / I’ll never be a saint it’s true / I’m too busy surviving,” she croons as her banal opening credo. At least the erstwhile dominatrix isn’t trying too overly hard to prove her saintlessness this time (with the exception of one cocky anti-apology, “Human Nature,” her post-Letterman F-you to critics). Rather, here she returns to tender expressions of love and loneliness; yeah, the soft Madonna is back.

Shorn of the puerile shock value of “Erotica” or the showy versatility of “True Blue,” “Bedtime Stories” immediately seems the least remarkable of all Madonna’s albums. But it’s not necessarily the least of them. Despite four producers (each new to her equation), it has a nice, consistently relaxed feel, its slow jams hip-hop-inflected but not as self-consciously as last time, none of the songs rising too needlessly above mid-tempo.

The one track produced by Babyface goes in for bathos, but Dallas Austin and Nellee Hooper draw better results. Best are Austin’s “Don’t Stop,” an irresistible dance anthem that could have been on her first couple of albums but for the funkier production, and Hooper’s cool, near-ambient title song (co-written by Hooper and Bjork).

Lyrically it’s another story. It’s hard to believe that such a great interview could pen such strings of non-ironic cliches (“My heart has always been a lonely hunter”?). Cole Porter she’s not, but, you know, she’s too busy surviving.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).