After the success of Bedtime Stories, Madonna had originally gone in to write some tunes with Babyface again, but she found the material too similar to her previous album and started something more fresh and up to date. Despite the results always being great, you cannot deny that Madonna is always very conscious of who and what is hot in the charts at any given moment, and has an almost insatiable need to stay relevant; especially when new trends and younger pop stars come into the mainstream. These things come and go, and though Madonna integrates elements of them into her sound and image, she outlives them all. How many pop princesses barely out of their teens have come along in the past few years, hyped by the media as the new Madonna? A lot. And how many of them have over taken her crown? None. Madonna seems to rise up again and again, reiterating the cliché of her being the queen of reinvention. She may have a team with her at all times, guiding her through each move and business plan - musical or otherwise - but she is always in the driver's seat; especially when it comes to making a record.
Madonna wrote a few songs with Rick Nowels, and even went back to trusty old pal Patrick Leonard, before she came up with the clever idea of working with electronic wizard William Orbit. With the plan for making an album that sounded both "old and new," Madonna decided upon combining both the wider scope of world music and dance together in a kind of new age techno format, a mutation of totally opposing styles. On paper it didn't look to be that good an idea. But Madonna proved everyone wrong and pulled out one of the biggest surprises of her career, as well as one of her finest albums.
Experimental from the moment it begins, Ray of Light is a constantly magical and imaginative affair. It all begins mystically and with an air of strange mystery, as the chilling keyboards bring in Drowned World/Substitute for Love, a saddened admittance by Madonna that she was once addicted to fame and put it in place of true love. Her voice sounds vulnerable again, while all feelings are bare and exposed for us to examine. The irony of course is in the fact that she's confessing her mistakes, her over reliance on fame and celebrity, then singing it on a high profile album for millions to hear. It presents us with the classic Madonna dichotomy; she is repulsed by fame, the lack of privacy, constant judgment and media put downs, yet she craves the attention and without it feels like a failure. Here, she gets the muddled feelings right and captures the essence of her own dilemma against a stunning musical back drop. Despite the trippy backwards noises and lush little touches throughout, it's still Madonna's voice that grabs most of the attention, as it comes forth from the mix like the greatest instrument of all.
Swim is a personal favourite of mine, a transcendent journey within; punctuated by bubbling synths and a mean guitar riff. Madonna herself hypnotises us with a mesmerising vocal, as the song soothes and melts away. Its calm sense of inner spirituality and contentment leads into the euphoric delights of the album's anthemic title track, a bouncing, thudding Madonna classic. The dance beat is relentless, pumping away as the heart of the uplifting song, which is a call to arms, a moment of arrival, a theme song for defiance and a new beginning. From the more muffled, but still enjoyable sounds of Erotica and Bedtime Stories, Madonna here sounds liberated, artistically set free into a wild world of merging genres and energising experimentation. In 2015, Orbit himself expressed his acknowledgement of what a departure for Madonna it really was and how its amalgamation of styles and genres made it unique for the time. He also pointed out that in today's limited mainstream pop world, where very few dare to do anything outside of the norm, that Ray of Light probably wouldn't be so accepted in the pop genre. It may have gone more underground, even with Madonna's name on the cover.
Things get a little swampier with the wonderful Candy Perfume Girl, which boasts a great beat and simple yet effective Madonna melodies. The electric guitar hints at early 90s American rock, or "grunge" as some people preferred to label it. Again, Madonna's voice is pure and pulls you in to the surreal dreaminess with ease. Things become a little more gloomy and introspective with the next two numbers, the underwater floaty feel of Skin being particularly entrancing. Whether you're a fan or not of club music, dance or trance, you can still enjoy this one, for the strange bleeps and beeps, the relentless beat and a hazy Madonna vocal entertain with calm ease.
Nothing Really Matters is another one of the album's famous tracks, inspired by Madonna's new baby Lourdes and the realisation of how much her life and outlook had changed with the arrival of the little girl. "There's a song on the album called Nothing Really Matters," Madonna said at the time, "and it is very much inspired by my daughter. It's just realising that at the end of the day, the most important thing is loving people and sharing love. The birth of my daughter has been a huge influence. It's different to look at life through the eyes of a child, and suddenly you have a whole new respect for life and you kind of get your innocence back."
It's a beautiful track and any parent can relate to the drastic shift in your life and mind set as soon as your child arrives on the earth. You become less selfish, self centered and more interested in life as a family unit, rather than a single entity. You also feel more whole and complete and this is reflected in this sincere track. Musically, it's pretty unusual and never goes over into corny territory at all, thanks to some truly inventive and kooky work from Orbit, perhaps the most accessible of all the dance music icons.
Shanti/Ashtangi is more unusual and out-there, incorporating Hindu prayers with techno; it's surely the first pairing of these styles in the mainstream. Once again, Madonna shows us how remarkable it is that she sells so many records, given the fact her ideas are often so avant-garde. Yes, the singles are often straight forward pop - and catchy as hell - yet on the records she hides some real challenging, innovative bits of curious treasure.
Frozen is, I'm sure most Madonna fans will agree, one of her most memorable singles and from the moment it was released - with that iconic, cinematic video and all - it became an instant classic. Madonna sings of someone with emotional problems, switched off from reality and more interested in wealth and gain. Again, she hints towards finding inner peace, and a kind of spiritual contentment. No mater how much money you may have, how many possessions and shallow distractions, it really means nothing unless you find a true meaning. The vocal melodies are fantastic and the chorus hums are utterly chilling. When she says "give yourself to me" and the strings rise up, sending shivers down the arms, you realise that by now Ray of Light is one of her most sophisticated and complete records, a perfect concept repeatedly hitting the target time and again.
The run of flawless gems continues with The Power of Goodbye, another devastating track; an emotional study of an inevitable parting. Although Madonna points out the potential "power" to be gained in this, she still sounds hurt, weak and vulnerable. There is so much feeling put into the sweet, smooth vocal.
To Have And Not To Hold is a fine, exotic song of mysticism, again the kind of thing you can close your eyes and float away to. Little Star is more upbeat, with pleasant and memorable melodies floating behind Madonna's voice, the bleeps, sweeping strings and a restless yet soothing beat. It's the lyrics which stick out though, and they are indeed very moving. She sings of her new baby, hoping for joy and happiness for her little star.
Final track Mer Girl is another mother-daughter song, only this one is from Madonna to her own later mother. It has a nightmarish feel to it, with Madonna imagining a darkly surreal scenario where her mother is burning, and she can smell her flesh. Though she had explored the loss of her mother before, it was never done as strangely as it was here. It's very dark, yet the combination of the subtle, tasteful music and Madonna's daring words make it a very interesting moment on the record, and a perfect end to it.
Ray of Light was a massive seller and her best received record since Like a Prayer. On a personal level, I feel it is definitely her best album of the 1990s and it's right up there with the afore mentioned, iconic 1989 album as one of her very best. It swept the board at the Grammys, bagging best pop album and more. Critically, it was very well received too, her best reviewed record since the 1980s.
Rolling Stone were in two minds about it, and obviously didn't think it was perfect, writing "She gets knocked up, but she gets down again: Meet the latest brand-new Madonna, the Chemical Mother. Ray of Light is her maternity album as well as her avant-dance album, riding the electronica wave with her new collaborator, U.K. beat master William Orbit." Then again, they also added, rather bluntly "Ray of Light isn't quite the triumphant musical comeback her fans were praying novenas for. She hasn't regained her genius for the crass, linear pop hook, and the Eighties Madonna of high-energy beats and wise-ass bravado is gone forever — that show is over, say goodbye. Instead, Ray of Light sums up the best we can expect from Madonna at this late date: overly arty, occasionally catchy, confused, second hand, infuriating and great fun in spite of herself. She doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what she wants to say about motherhood, other than that it's the sort of intense experience that happens to a special person like Madonna."
Some have called this Madonna's midlife crisis record, but I personally disagree. There is clearly no crisis in sight and Madonna comes across as a woman who has, however briefly or not she may have felt it, arrived as a complete person. Spiritually, things were starting to make sense, and her child had altered things completely. Out of the emotionally lost and arguably aimless 90s, Madonna seemed to go towards the millennium not only more whole as a person, but also as an artist. There is a great sense of quiet, modest confidence to the music here and although Orbit deserves a lot of the credit, Madonna herself is at the steering wheel - that much is clear. This is her record, a reflective LP in singer songwriter mode dressed up as a dance-pop album. Brilliant, and an album that only becomes more powerful and thought provoking as the years go by.
This article is taken from the book THE MUSIC OF MADONNA, available on this website, and Amazon, plus other online book stores.