By David Browne
Updated September 22, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

With a little Ray of Light, Madonna fell into electronica — or, at least, her version of it — and the early word on the follow-up to that album was that she would burrow even deeper into subterranean dance grooves. The rumors were all but confirmed when one cut, ”Music,” was bootlegged over the Internet this summer. Even amid its scratchy, boot-quality sound, the song felt like a seductive middle ground between the past (’80s electro) and present (house). Then the track was officially released, with cover art depicting Maddy not as a space-age vixen but, of all non sequiturs, as a rhinestone cowgirl. Techno? Country? Where was all this going?

The same question can be asked of the album, also called Music. It opens with that single, which grows more intricate and dizzying each passing second, thanks to French techno producer Mirwais Ahmadzai. Even as Madonna tosses off her inconsequential lyrics (”When the music starts/I never wanna stop”), Mirwais (who, like his employer, goes only by his first name) devilishly cranks up pingponging synths, heart-monitor beeps, and electronic sirens, and his bass lines hit your chest with a hard thwack. These French electronicists and their humor: It must be something in the Seine.

Helming 6 of the 10 tracks, Mirwais — a 39-year-old ex-punker with a fondness for folktronica — is the record’s dominant musical force. In fact, his own maniacal European album, Production (released in Europe early this year and scheduled for Stateside unveiling in January), serves as a blueprint for Music. On the second cut, ”Impressive Instant,” Madonna doles out her dippiest lyrics in ages (”Cosmic systems intertwine/Astral bodies drip like wine”), but Mirwais goes all out, encasing her in a jet-stream, hard-disco beat and continually contorting her voice. On this sort of musical whirlybird, you can practically see the producer wildly twiddling synthesizer knobs to find the most whacked-out sounds he can, before running over to yet another machine in search of more sonic dementia. His approach isn’t especially deep, but it’s a good match for Y2K Madonna. An over-40 mother of two, she can no longer startle us with image or lifestyle, especially when her competition is Eminem and crafty girls two decades her junior. All that’s left is to surprise us with music, which the Mirwais tracks do.

If only the entire album were so bold. With several other producers pitching in, it’s her most patchwork record since the Sean Penn years. Music burps and thumps harder than Ray of Light, and it allows her moments of playful humor absent from that dour, albeit vital, predecessor. But it doesn’t have the cohesiveness of Light or 1994’s Bedtime Stories, and it commits a heretofore unimaginable Madonna sin: Like its title, it’s a little drab.

For that, blame needs to be shared equally. Madonna reunites with Ray of Light collaborator William Orbit, but this time the results are less inspiring. ”Runaway Lover” has a hard-stepping techno pulse hampered by a mundane melody and lyric (in which Madonna, ironically, scolds a man for not being beholden to just one woman), while the heartbreak song ”Amazing” rehashes Madonna and Orbit’s far superior ”Beautiful Stranger.” (Isn’t it mystifying that her album cuts are often less satisfying than the rompy treats she knocks off for soundtracks, from Desperately Seeking Susan‘s ”Into the Groove” to The Spy Who Shagged Me‘s ”Beautiful Stranger”?) Mirwais does his best to punch up another ballad, ”I Deserve It,” but even his machine-driven whirrings can’t compensate for a glum, Madonna-unplugged melody with prosaic lyrics like ”Many miles, many roads I have traveled/Fallen down on the way.”

In the way it tiptoes around sundry moods and beats, Music is frustratingly inconsistent, as if Madonna herself weren’t sure where to venture next. At times, it feels like a collection of sounds — clever, intriguing ones, to be sure — that seek to compensate for ordinary melodies and Madonna’s stoic delivery. The use of vocoders and assorted sonic trinkets on sullen Mirwais tracks like ”Paradise (Not for Me)” and ”Nobody’s Perfect” seems particularly gimmicky. But then her vocal mask drops and out comes ”What It Feels Like for a Girl,” a muted sparkler with a softly padding beat and genuinely empathetic lyrics about teenagers. It’s an older, wiser ”Into the Groove,” and it’s a beautiful keeper. Music doesn’t close the book on Madonna, but it pulls only a few new tomes off the shelf. B