Madonna's latest is a step forward.
By Michael McCall
MARCH 16, 1998: Who would have expected Madonna to succeed where U2, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie have all failed? With Ray of Light, Madonna becomes the first established superstar to draw from the electronica underground and create a modern music masterpiece. She's certainly not the first performer to succeed at grafting pop melodies onto ambient soundscapes, techno beats, and buzzing, beeping, blurting sounds; Radiohead, Bjork, Beth Orton, Massive Attack, Portishead, Lamb, and Morcheeba have all fashioned highly individual music from a fusion of classic songcraft and modern audio technology.
Even so, Madonna is the first household name to take on the new form and come up with something powerful, distinctive, and uncompromising. At long last, she has created an album worthy of the fame she's worked so hard to acquire.
Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Madonna would take to electronica better than her rock 'n' roll peers. Where U2 and the Stones originally built their music around guitars--and still do, for the most part--Madonna emerged from the dance music scene. She's worked with percussive beats and cutting-edge producers all of her career, and she's always maintained a love for the urban nightclub scene, which remains the primary audience for hardcore techno and electronica music.
Like U2 and the Stones, Madonna hooked up with a hip studio auteur to make her stab at a groundbreaking new sound. But U2's collaboration with tech-head Howie B diluted what's special both about the band and about the studio wizard. The Stones' electronica move was halfhearted from the start--the Dust Brothers production team (best known for their work with Beck) simply tacked a few modern studio tricks onto tracks that the band had already recorded.
Madonna, on the other hand, has achieved a true artistic collaboration with producer William Orbit. And what they've wrought is better than anything that either individual has previously created. Part of the reason for their creative success might be that Orbit isn't one of the young, headphone-wearing obsessives currently pushing the electronica movement forward; instead, he's a veteran musician with a modest track record. He worked the synth-dance sound in the early '80s as a member of Torch Song, and later as a solo artist. In the early '90s, he led a short-lived underground dance group called Bassomatic.
In recent years, Orbit has apparently made a quantum leap in ability, for his work on Ray of Light is truly inspired. He's worked similar magic before, including compelling remixes of Madonna's hit "Justify My Love" and the title track from her Erotica album. But none of his previous work--not even with Massive Attack--approaches the strengths of Ray of Light. For that, he has to thank his musical collaborator. Important as Orbit's highly stylized production is to the album, it wouldn't have the same impact without the newfound depth of Madonna's songwriting or without the unexpected strength of her vocals.
In its way, Ray of Light may do for Madonna what 1997's most critically acclaimed album, Time Out of Mind, did for Bob Dylan. Madonna's new collection is that personal, that revealing, and that good. With Ray of Light, the former Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone completes her transformation from the Material Girl who uses sex as an instrument of power to the Maternal Woman who uses spiritualism as a tool for finding inner peace.
She's been moving toward a deeper perspective in her songwriting through most of the '90s--both 1992's Erotica and 1995's Bedtime Stories sought transcendence through sexual experimentation and physical release, while the music tended toward a more mature style than her earlier hits. But Ray of Light shoots off in a different direction. In addition to its sublime arrangements, the record finds Madonna blatantly dismissing the media-savvy manipulations of her past while openly displaying her current preoccupation with spirituality, karma, and inner peace.
Is this just another cynical pose by the best image conceptualist of our time? Is Madonna, with uncanny ingenuity, simply adopting the latest in a series of roles that appeal to the public consciousness? Now 39, perhaps this expert chameleon is just assuming the guise of a doting mother whose maternal instincts have turned her into a humble seeker--an archly clever way for her to maintain the high profile she so passionately desires.
Whether that's true or not, there will be those who find it impossible to hear Ray of Light without filtering it through Madonna's larger-than-life persona. But it's precisely this persona that Madonna now aggressively seeks to cast off--or so she says in several of her songs. "I traded fame for love, without a second thought," she sings in the opening number, "Drowned World/Substitute for Love." She says she got exactly what she asked for, yet she never stopped "running, rushing" for more attention and more wealth. "Now I find I've changed my mind," she states plainly.
It's a theme that runs throughout the album. In "Nothing Really Matters," she sings, "Looking at my life, it's very clear to me I lived so selfishly," before saying all that matters is our ability to love one another. In "Frozen," the album's first single, she seems to speak to her former self, saying, "You're so consumed by how much you get, you waste your time with hate and regret. You're broken when your heart's not open."
Several of the album's bests songs--"Sky Fits Heaven," "Swim," and the beautiful rhythmic chant "Shanti/Ashtangi"--also carry spiritual themes, but the messages are general rather than personal. The most unforgettable track is the most searingly self-involved: "Mer Girl," which closes the album, finds Madonna recounting aspects of her well-known story. It tells of a woman haunted by a deceased mother and running away from a domineering father; she keeps running and running while cursing the angels and hiding her fears.
Just as the album opens with images of Madonna running after all the wrong goals, she closes by speaking of decay and rotting flesh before making her final words very clear: "I'm still running today." If that's the case, at least Ray of Light suggests she's running on the right track.
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