Madonna being Madonna, it's no surprise that the arrival of her new album was preceded by buzz words, gossip and hype.
"She has embraced electronica," went one set of whispers. "She's getting in touch with her spiritual side," insisted another, pointing to stories of Madonna studying Jewish mysticism through the cabala. "Having a baby has really changed her attitude," went a third refrain.
Electronica? Cabalica? Maternica? What kind of album is this, anyway?
A remarkably strong one, as it turns out. In fact, it would not be stretching matters to say that "Ray of Light" (Maverick 46847, arriving in stores today) is Madonna's most impressive work since 1989's "Like a Prayer."
Doubtless some of that strength is because the songs on her new album are every bit as questing and introspective as those on "Like a Prayer." But "Ray of Light" is hardly a reflection of the past. Rather than ruminate on the forces that forged Madonna, "Ray" sheds light on her current state, in hopes of illuminating the path she's on. Or, as "Nothing Really Matters" puts it, "Nothing takes the past away/Like the future."
So instead of singing about growing up Catholic and feeling ambivalent about her father, Madonna addresses the joys of childhood ("Little Star"), the mysteries of fate ("Sky Fits Heaven"), the price of fame ("Drowned World/Substitute for Love") and the ephemeral nature of love ("To Have and Not to Hold").
All of which sounds terribly touchy-feely, to be sure. Nor will cynics be reassured by the inclusion of "Shanti/Ashangi," whose Sanskrit lyrics are taken from the Yoga Taravali, much less by the fact that the first voice we hear on the album belongs to Rod McKuen (sampled from an old McKuen album, no less).
Yet as ethereal as its themes may be, the music on "Ray of Light" is utterly visceral. As shaped by ambient techno producer William Orbit, Madonna's songs are sonic marvels, rich with soft, swooshing synths while packing all the percussive punch of a club hit.
"Drowned World/Substitute for Love" is typical. It starts off quietly enough, with the cool tones of a vibraphone sketching arpeggiated chords as ghostly synths whinny in the background. McKuen's sampled voice says, "Y'see ," and Madonna begins to sing. It seems a straightforward enough approach, combining the gentle atmospherics of ambient techno with the melodic focus of a typical Madonna ballad.
But just when the murmured melody and slow-throbbing pulse seem about to lull the listener into a blissed-out trance state, the arrangement shifts gears. Orbit adds guitars, ups the noise quotient and pushes the tune toward electronic cacophony. It gathers intensity, Madonna's voice rising, and just as she laments there being "No one night stand, no far off land/No fire I can spark," then the music subsides, ebbing as suddenly as it rose.
"I've changed my mind," she sings in the ensuing quiet. "This is my new religion."
There's plenty more such drama on the album, and not just because Madonna continues to change her mind. For one thing, she's singing better than ever these days, bringing more power and control to what she does. This newfound strength is particularly apparent in pulsing, rhythm driven tracks like the title tune, which finds her soaring confidently at the top of her register on the busily percolating chorus, then whispering breathily on the brief, dream-like bridge.
But it also brings added resonance to word-focused, emotionally nuanced ballads like "Frozen" (the current single) and "Mer Girl." Maybe it's part of the pay-off from her flirtation with musical theater, but there's a much stronger sense of narrative in these performances. For instance, what makes the anxious dreamscape of "Mer Girl" seem so vivid isn't the imagery her lyrics describe so much as the mood she evokes with her voice (which Orbit supports with a stark, spooky smear of synths and sound effects).
Don't get the wrong idea, though. Madonna's emotional epiphanies may add depth and weight to the album, but they're hardly its heart. As is so often the case with Madonna, the catchiest songs here are also the most propulsive. Sometimes, that hookiness seems a cover for lyrical weakness, as in the perky-yet-nonsensical "Candy Perfume Girl" (sample lyric: "Fever steam girl/Throb the oceans"), but such moments are more the exception than the rule.
More common by far are smart, groove-intensive tunes like the tart, house-inflected "Nothing Really Matters" or the dark, bass-driven "Sky Fits Heaven." These aren't philosophical tracts with beats built in, but full-blown songs that depend more on the relationship between melody and rhythm than on anything on the lyric sheet. As such, even the album's obligatory bit of Eastern mysticism, "Shanti/Ashangi," manages to avoid novelty status, though it helps that Orbit grounds Madonna's chanting with clanking industrial sounds instead of the usual sitars and tablas.
Dance music as food for thought? It isn't the first time Madonna has done it, nor will it be the last. But we'll be very lucky, indeed, if she continues to do it as brilliantly as she does on "Ray of $$ Light."
Pub Date: 3/03/98