This is the Madonna album history will remember.
Too many successful artists become parodies of their own success; Madonna looked to the future instead, and risked her sound. Consequently, Erotica defines the cliché "ahead of its time," the album sounding even fresher now in 2006 than it did in 1992, when the world did not have the images it needed to internalize it (despite the series of truly beautiful videos it came with). For artists out there wondering how Madonna keeps on going: look to Erotica first. This is the album that separated her from the pop herd.
The sound is what coheres the album together as a whole: a cerebral, machine-produced beat, a whitewashed wall-of-sound more often associated with Björk and Portishead. (Björk would later on collaborate with Madonna on a song in Bedtime Stories that would not sound out of place either on this album or Ray Of Light.) This is not Madonna and a producer walled in a studio, creating a world together, and that's probably why the album failed commercially. Pop music is didactic in its imagery, or uses imagery so obvious as to be didactic (hence the endless repetition of hook-up and break-up scenarios). Erotica in that sense is not pop music; it's a soundtrack for a lifestyle.
The dance tracks "Erotica" and "Thief Of Hearts" exemplify this sound, although this approach is used on the slower tracks as well, creating an ambient trip-hop effect. Everything works well: "Secret Garden" combines jazz chord progressions into a machine drum beat to create a soft and unsettling contradiction, "Rain" is one of her best pop ballads to date with its wide open, atmospheric feel, "Why's It So Hard" has a subdued but determined groove that evokes more anger than all of Jagged Little Pill.
The lyrics of these songs are among the best of her career, dealing with issues like AIDS, gay rights, and destructive as well as creative sexuality; "Bad Girl" is about the unexpectedly unpleasant aspects of hedonism, and "Where Life Begins" is such a subtle piece of work that I had no idea it was about female oral sex for about ten years. "Deeper And Deeper" is supposedly about homosexuality (I don't see it) but a clearer approach is in "In This Life," which combines an unexpected but recognizable combination of regret and anger at the death and injustice of forgetting of a gay friend.
This album is clearly a labor of love: there isn't a single bad song among its fourteen tracks (thirteen in some regions). But aside from mere craftsmanship is the question of artistic vision: how did Madonna, in the era of that other religious-sounding band Nirvana, predict this would be the sound of the future? Maybe she didn't; maybe it was dumb luck. Maybe it really pays to create sound your emotions ring true to, instead of trying to be contemporary and hip. The world was ready for her by the time she returned to a warmer version of this sound with Ray Of Light, but true history had already been made.