Ray Of Light


Warner Brothers Records, 1998


REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith


If 1994’s “Take A Bow” was Madonna’s comeback single, then 1998’s Ray Of Light was her comeback album. The change from provocative sex siren to Evita Peron had certainly been an extreme shift for her, but it’s nothing compared to the transformation she underwent after discovering the obscure Jewish spiritual practice known as Kabbalah. No longer the material girl, Madonna was now ready to focus on more important things in her life. First off, she now had a daughter named Lourdes Maria to raise and the chance to be the mother that she never had. With so many changes, Madonna uses the bulk of Ray Of Light to share what she had learned about her newfound spirituality with all of us. All she could do was hope the world was still paying attention.

Delving into electronica headfirst was a daring move, but after the success of her techno label mates Prodigy, the timing seemed right to try her hand at the genre. However, instead of Prodigy’s trademark aggressiveness and distortion, Madonna made her own brand of ambient electronica more personal and intimate. With the help of technology wizard William Orbit, as well as co-producers Marius DeVries and Patrick Leonard, Madonna crafted an impressive thirteen tracks in total, making the end result as lengthy as 1992’s Erotica. While that album seemed polarizing at best, Ray Of Light was embraced instantly by fans and critics alike. Even the Grammy Academy took notice, bestowing Madonna with the first competitive awards of her career. As prestigious and gratifying as the occasion was, it was one that was seen by many as long overdue.

The lead-off single, “Frozen,” is an understated affair, a song that just didn’t have the impact or the weight of other world premiere releases by the artist. Just as she did on “Secret,” Madonna hums her way through most of the song, causing the listener to speculate that she doesn’t have much to say anymore. And those icy strings -- I mean, enough already. Yes, “Frozen” did reach #2 on the chart, but had the title track “Ray Of Light” been released as the first single instead, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would have given Madonna another #1. Unfortunately, by the time “Ray Of Light” was finally released as a single, most people had already bought the album. That’s the only explanation I can find to why “Ray Of Light” barely scraped into the Top 5.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

What makes “Ray Of Light” one of Madonna’s best singles is the fact that it is such a bitch to sing. Filled with multiple octave changes, it forced Madonna to push her vocal as far as it could possibly go. The song demanded she make use of her upper register and hold notes longer than she ever had before. It really is a techno gem that is always a standout at her concerts. After hearing a sample of it for the first time in the spring of 1998, I just knew that Madonna had outdone herself. The song brings the entire album of to a whole new level. In fact, it has ended up as my choice for the best album of the ‘90s.

The opening track, “Drowned World/Substitute For Love,” is another high point. It’s a dreamy ballad that puts Madonna’s much-improved voice front and center. The lyrics (about how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be) are sung in a somewhat mournful way, with Madonna seeming almost wistful about what her life has become. Later, on “The Power Of Goodbye” she goes a step further and attempts to sing in a faux-operatic style, which is something she had previously experimented with when she sang “You Must Love Me” at the Academy Awards a year earlier. Needless to say, the jury is still out on whether opera is something better left up to the professionals.

There are a few more exciting moments on Ray Of Light that happen to work exceedingly well. The booming “Sky Fits Heaven” is a slice of techno that is bound to make dance floor ravers proud, while the buzzing “Candy Perfume Girl” is as close to a full-on rock song as you probably will ever hear coming from Madonna. And, if all that wasn’t enough, Madonna challenges herself even more by singing “Shanti/Ashtangi” entirely in Sanskrit. As a yoga chant set to a hypnotic rhythm, this track does suffer from murky production, though it did make a terrific B-side for “Frozen.”

The last two offerings, “Little Star” and “Mer Girl,” are also the most autobiographical in content. Written just for baby Lourdes, “Little Star” is beautiful in its simplicity and intent, while the trippy “Mer Girl” explains just how haunted Madonna still is today by her own mother’s untimely death. That is the paradox of life, after all – the more things change, the more they stay the same. While Madonna isn’t necessarily complaining about where her life has taken her, she can’t help but be a little paranoid about where she might be headed. Makes you want to think twice about wanting to trade places with someone as famous as her, doesn’t it?

Rating: A

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© 2008 Michael R. Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.