First things first: Garry Mulholland’s Guardian review of this album that Tom blogged last week was absurd and unintentionally hilarious, exemplifying all the worst aspects of the paper’s pop coverage. Familiar by now, the title song is far better than any song called “Music” has a right to be, and its descriptions of what music is, and what it can do, are merely observations (and, though glib, very accurate ones) rather than a complete dramatisation-of-the-self and ridiculous sweeping statements (cf that other song called “Music”). That said, Mulholland’s “naff” description applies perfectly to the second track in, “Impressive Instant”. It’s hideous; the vocoders are indescribably cheesy, and the treatment of her vocals generally is very dated. It’s faux-contemporary in the worst sense, the only song here to fit the hack’s idea of this album as a middle-aged grasp at What The Kids Are Into. I can’t listen to it without cringing, and it’s an embarrassment on a par with her worst mid-90s efforts at chasing clocks (the appalling cod-swingbeat “Human Nature”, which remains probably her worst ever single).

But then there’s “Runaway Lover”, which is absolutely unstoppably brilliant. Remember the rush of “Ray of Light” last time out, the way it seemed to announce her return from artistic / commercial exile, its fearlessness and exhilaration? This has the same quality; it plays much the same production tricks as its predecessor but never touches that cheesiness. She’s rarely sung better. And “I Deserve It” might just be her best ever slow / reflective moment; it’s a defiant semi-autobiography with an edge of sadness but devoid of all miserablism, and ultimately defiant. It’s that rarity; a reflection on her life without being remotely self-obsessed or self-mythologising (cf her fearfully, horribly cloying “This Used To Be My Playground”, from the period when her original myth was beginning to collapse and her years of apparent irrelevance were approaching).

Apart from a few of the production touches, “Amazing” is mediocre by comparison, and “Nobody’s Perfect” is pretty bland (that vocoder returns, along with some nasty synth twiddling that recalls an amateurish Vince Clarke). I don’t think I’ll ever particularly want to listen to “Don’t Tell Me” again. It’s early days yet, but I think “What It Feels Like For A Girl” could grow on me – it has virtually no significant content, but something in its succulent, meringue-like production could well draw me in on repeated listens, though the edge of blandness might make it a guilty pleasure.

“Paradise (Not For Me)” continues from here, and confirms the downbeat, thoughtful feel of the concluding part of this record, perhaps more melancholic than any previous Madonna album. But it sounds curiously dated to my ears – the sound is quite specifically mid-90s. “Gone” is the ideal conclusion, confirming the reflectiveness which is the most “uncommercial” thing about this record, rather than the much-vaunted “strangeness” of the mostly quite ordinary production. Timeless and classicist in a very good sense (perhaps because the sound is quite classicist, therefore lacking the distinct air of the recent past of the track that comes before), and it’s quite beautiful. Will Madonna always be here? Might she disappear, even retire? How will she sustain ageing? What and where will be she be at 50 or 60? Questions unanswered for the moment, and “Gone” gives us no clear answers, all for the better. Rather it has us wondering “where next?”, and if that “where next?” applies to Madonna herself rather than her music, it’s a reflection of her significance and importance.

I’m only reviewing “American Pie” along with the album out of a sense of duty (admittedly, I’ve never described it before and have wanted to since release), because it’s clearly nothing to do with the album onto which it’s been inelegantly tacked on in the UK (though not the US). I couldn’t believe myself loving it on release, the way its enticing arrangement and, perhaps most importantly, its distance from the place and time that originally lapped it up, along with all its worst implications (the cynical, depressed America of the early 70s) made me love a song I’ve hated as long as I can remember, as though something wonderful was lurking beneath its hideous disguise all the time (I still can’t quite believe that anything was, but am increasingly coming to feel that, beneath Don Maclean’s odious nostalgia and hatred of any complexity, edginess or uncertainty entering pop music, there was always a decent song). It’s totally unconnected to “Music”, but it can only be described as a miracle of a single.

And as for “Music” itself? All Madonna albums have fillers; there is one embarrassing track here, three that are pretty uninspired, one already familiar, three very good, and two I’m unsure of. Fairly par for the course, but this is perhaps the first record where she’s introduced regret and melancholia as the key themes, specifically in the second half, without tugging on your heartstrings or going MOR. She may still sink into mediocrity from time to time, but her fascination is still great, and this album is all the better for the lack of certainties and the open-ended questions it leaves.