Madonna – Ray Of Light

Two notes to kick of this review:

1. The only album in Madonna’s catalog before this to really have and strong central theme (as opposed to just being a collection of great pop songs) was Erotica.

2. The only other album released in 1998 by a female artist to dominate the conversation more that year was The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, an album often cited as one of the greatest of all time.

This important because it demonstrates that even when the 80s died Madonna survived. And not BARELY survived but was on top on her game and the music game and her global success would get even bigger in the following decade. Only Mariah Carey was pulling was more top 10 hits (and mostly #1 singles) than Madonna in the 90s. And you could argue Madonna outlasted Mariah Carey in terms of staying power and chart success. Meanwhile in the UK Madonna only became MORE popular logging twenty-four top ten singles that decade.

So here we have the pop realms greatest chameleon turning 40 and changing her image to that of mother in jeans and looking more mature than she ever had and she certainly seemed more joyous than ever as evidenced by her performance of “Ray Of Light” on Oprah.

But enough of that, what of the album itself?

“Drowned World/Substitue For Love”, one of my favorites on Ray Of Light (and often cited as the best on the album (and maybe one of her best in her whole catalog) starts the album. This was the third single and sets a downtempo electronica tone provided by William Orbit’s production that would define this era and the album. It is arguably one her least directly pop sounding songs.

Now in my head I remembered that, “Ray Of Light” was the second track but it is not. “Swim” is the second track and honestly after the opening incantation of the first track, “Swim” felt like a let down. It is a fine song with the drifting guitars and synth but the ecstasy of, “Ray Of Light” would’ve been a better follow up and served the album better. A lot of the album resonates with the joy of being a new mother and of hitting “middle age” and being wiser while still having the energy to run circles around people half your age. Even on the heartbreak songs there is a sense of joy and aliveness simply because of the state of life the artist was in at the time.

But onto to track three… BAM! The title track. A total euphoric banger in every aspect. The song itself has some storied history and is one of those Madonna specifics naysayers love to bring up to discredit her entire career. The short version is William Orbit was rerecording a song called “Sepheryn” with vocalist Christine Leach. The song was written by Curtiss Muldoon and Dave Curtis. Madonna and Orbit made a few lyric changes and drastically altered the melody. The original writers didn’t even know the song had been covered it until they heard it on the radio. So if Madonna had not recorded it and it was left with the original vocalist this likely would not even be a story people discuss. But because it was Madonna…

Yes, it was presented at the time as a Madonna song as if she was the sole creator… but that is just the way it is with pop music and music fans in general. We generally concede the name on the album made the music, for most kids are not reading liner notes. And back in the late 90s we didn’t have the vast internet archive to look up all the specifics (if we wanted) or have nerds on reddit pointing these things out every day. So for most people, for good or ill, it was and is a Madonna song.

And ultimately I say yeah, whatever. I know it’s origins… and I know enough about to the music industry to know this is not a unique story. I got bigger gripes with the industry, honestly. Besides, the writers did get paid and the end result is a euphoric electronic banger! And to think Madonna had originally intended for the song to be ten minutes. I secretly hope that version gets released at some point.

“Candy Perfume Girl” reverts back to the more rock dripped trip-hop of the first two tracks, doing things not too dissimilar from Garbage or Portishead. The fourth track “Skin” finds Madonna back in electronic rave territory with a song that I interpret as being about personal rebirth. Which would be inline with her newfound spirituality at the time.

Do I know you from somewhere?
Why do you leave me wanting more?
Why do all the things I say
Sound like the stupid things I’ve said before?

Put your hand on my skin
Put your hand on my skin
Put your hand on my skin

Kiss me, I’m dying
Put your hand on my skin
I close my eyes
I need to make a connection
I’m walking on a thin line

I find myself spinning to this song in my apartment.

The first single off the album was “Frozen”, which comes in the latter quarter of the record unlike so many albums that front load with the singles because they don’t have or don’t trust the other material to carry the album. Of course by the CD age track order began to matter less and less as you could just skip the bits you were not a fan of. But before we get there we have one of my favorite tracks on the album “Nothing Really Matters” another total electronica banger with a message I can get behind.

When I was very young
Nothing really mattered to me
But making myself happy
I was the only one

Now that I am grown
Everything’s changed
I’ll never be the same
Because of you

Nothing really matters
Love is all we need
Everything I give you
All comes back to me

That, “because of you” is probably a reference to her child. But I like to think it’s about the fans who took every journey she was willing to take.

I don’t recall at the time but currently people have taken to trashing Madonna and the album for posing as a Björk wannabe in the same way she posed with the vouging before this and freestyle before that. Madonna has always looked to the underground and pulled it into the mainstream and some hate her for it. Others think it’s lazy or means she, “isn’t all that”. But she logged the numbers. You can’t deny it. She made global hits out of the underground sounds. And let’s be real here, if those underground artists had made it big with their underground sounds these same music nerds would be shouting, “Sellouts!”  Music snobs want it every way but the way it goes, it seems.

“Sky Fits Heaven”… Track seven. That rhymes… coincidence? Probably. But on this round of listening, it came out of nowhere and SLAMMED me with nostalgia. I forgot existing on this album was a straight up rave song! And I played the album not but a month ago when working on this series!

I’ve played the song three times in a row now. That piano line and the chorus really hit my core and it is bittersweet recalling all the suppressed trauma I was in at this time. It may be my favorite track on the album now, second only to a song I will address later.

Traveling down this road
Watching the signs as I go
I think I’ll follow the sun
Isn’t everyone just
Traveling down their own road
Watching the signs as they go
I think I’ll follow my heart
It’s a very good place to start

Yeah at this point in my life looking back at my younger self in the throes of major depression this hits differently. I wonder how it would’ve played as a single.

“Shanti, Ashtangi” is where she fully expresses her then newfound spirituality, which I do recall was a big part of this era. She did seem to be pushing this the way people do when they find some exciting new way of thinking or some super food, that “saved them”. But personally, it feels like a speed bump in the album because while the rest of the album is spiritual too, it is cloaked in electronic-pop clothes.

This feels more like something the new age yoga music music crowd my dream up in a focus group session. Also I am not buying it coming from her… it feels like a trend she hopped on because it was a cool new toy for her. To which yeah- You could say the same about how she hopped on underground music trends, I guess. But at least with the genre hopping it ended up feeling Madonna. This… not quite. Also it stalls us from getting to my favorite track on the album and one of Madonna’s best songs ever, track ten, “The Power Of Goodbye”.

Under my artistic direction this would’ve ended the album. It is a perfect closer. It features some of her best vocals and I just adore the whole mood.

And so I say before reaching the albums end this is an album that with some cuts would have been STELLAR on such a level that it would be hard to deny it as one of the greatest albums (certainly pop albums) ever. But CDs allowed people put every idea on a single disc. The worst offender of the era being Shania Twain. But nowadays I’ve seen a trend of people making their own albums. Meaning, fans take a great album they love that might be a little bloated and either cut out tracks or rearrange track order for their own preferred listening experience.

But in-bewteen her spiritual incantation and my favorite song on the album is the other monster single, “Frozen”.

You’re so cosumed with how much you get
You waste your time with hate and regret
You’re broken
When your heart’s not open

Ironically in the current Madonna sphere these lyrics hit different because for many it does seem like The Queen Of Pop has fallen prey to this very thing. I don’t know if that is true or just surface perception.

I will confess, I mostly heard “Frozen” in club remix form as done by Hex Hector. Turning the ballad into a queer club 8 minute workout. So that is the version I was most used and it definitely brings a different flavor. But at the end of the day, “Power Of Goodbye” is the better song and the best on the album. And I dare say maybe her best song of all time second only to maybe “Live To Tell”. It. Just. Is. And again, I wish this would’ve ended the album.

But there are two more songs. The songs are nice. “Little Star” a song about her new daughter is the better version of, “Shanti, Ashtangi”. And “Mer Girl” is the most self reflective song on the album. With lyrics like

I ran to the forest, I ran to the trees
I ran and I ran, I was lookin’ for me

Also I just learned this song was about the passing of her own mother. And lyrically I like it but the production here is the weakest in my opinion. I can see she was going for something like an ending prayer. But I wish it would have mirrored the lush production of the opening track to complete the circle because the power (pun intended) of “The Power Of Goodbye” makes the final two songs feel like a let down. But maybe with some cuts elsewhere it would feel less like a let down. The album ends not with euphoria but with doubt and with a whisper not a shout. And since so much of the rest of the record feels like pure uninhibited joy it just feels tacked on. She really had something she wanted to say but could not, “kill her darling”.

All of that said. I come away really liking this album more than I remember liking it when it came out. Some absolute floor fillers balanced with some more downtempo moods. No song is out right bad but some songs are just OK. And while I love the number 13, trimming a few tracks would’ve served the album better. You could leave the others to “b-sides & rarities”. And if I had my way, and in the age of digital I do, I’d construct my own Ray Of Light album. And with my edits Mer Girl doesn’t sound so bad at the end. So here is what the Bear edit of Ray Of Light looks like:

1. Drowned World, Substitute For Love
2. Ray Of Light
3. Candy Perfume Girl
4. Skin
5. Little Star
6. Frozen
7. Nothing Really Matters
8. Sky Fits Heaven
9. The Power Of Goodbye
10. Mer Girl

TASTY TRACKS:
The Power Of Goodbye
Sky Fits Heaven
Drowned World, Substitute For Love
Ray Of Light
Nothing Really Matters

And so I have left the temple and returned to the real world after experiencing three albums that set out to do more than the usual pop flair. And now back at a proper desk, we turn to my final thoughts and what came next for each artist in the outro.

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