Ray Of Light


Warner Brothers Records, 1998


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


After Madonna finished her stylish sex exploration with Erotica and Bedtime Stories, she took four years off from recording to make Evita and do some spiritual reflection. At least, that's what seems to be apparent in the lyrics of Ray Of Light, far and away the lady's best performance.

What's immediately noticeable on this record is Madonna's astonishing growth as an artist, both musically and lyrically. This has the pulsating dance beats of Erotica and the warmth of Bedtime Stories, but on here Madge no longer sounds forced, like she's singing about sex just to shock. The 13 songs here touch on sin, spirituality, being in mature love (not puppy or temporary dance-floor love), and loss. At one point, Madonna sings "Children killing children while the students rape their teachers" as part of a litany of sins on "Swim" -- certainly a long way from "Like a Virgin." my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Upon release, this was hailed as a masterpiece by critics, although a few people (there are always some) didn't like "Frozen," the first single, or the fact that the album had more substance than style, which they felt was unlike Madonna. They can all kiss it. This is not background music, like True Blue -- this demands attention because of the nuances Madonna and producer William Orbit place into each song.

For her part, Madonna turns in great vocal performances, using her ability to be sexy, sultry, innocent and crazy. The title track is her best song of all time -- an evocative, pulsing and upbeat track. "Skin" is also excellent, a long intense number that is darn near progressive pop that you can dance to. Music for the ass and the mind, this one is.

The opening "Drowned World/Substitute For Love" is slow and sensual, with a bit of backward guitar thrown in and Madonna's most confessional lyrics to date. "Candy Perfume Girl" mixes a low-key electric guitar strum with electronic bleeps and a meaty electronic beat to interesting effect, while "Sky Fits Heaven" is the most explicitly spiritual song here, perhaps foreshadowing Madonna's later fascination with Kabbalah (sample lyrics: "Hand fits giving so do it / That's what the Gospel said to me / Life fits living so let your judgments go / That's how our future should be").

Madonna embraces Eastern faith on "Shanti/Ashtangi," which in spite of its partially-Indian lyrics is catchy in a new-wave fashion. "Frozen" takes time to grow because it is underplayed, but it eventually emerges as an equal to the others, while "The Power Of Goodbye" is a melancholy, acoustic-driven tune that was a minor hit, as it should have been.

The album starts to drag a bit near the end -- it should have ended after "Goodbye" -- but that's a minor complaint, because even when this album is mediocre it's still amazing. At no other time in her career did Madonna combine such meaningful music with confessional, heartfelt lyrics, and she has yet to reach this height again.

Rating: A

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