There's no denying that we live in a superficial culture, but it's still a bit much to swallow when every couple of years the media collectively gush that Madonna has "reinvented" herself. What this profound reinvention usually amounts to is a new hairdo and a different Gautier ensemble. Beneath the gold-tooth trappings, was the Madonna of Erotica so shockingly different from the one we heard six years earlier on True Blue, or eight years earlier on Like a Virgin?
From the beginning, Madonna has been a tightly wound control freak who loves bubblegum pop and disco, and no amount of cosmetic change could ever camouflage it. Even if her voice lost some of its helium chirpiness through the years, her Broadway-derived sense of vocal precision constantly defined both her gargantuan ambitions and her limited ability to convey real emotion in her music. Of course, it's hard to expect much insight from the mass media concerning this biggest of all female pop icons. Even as she's pushing 40, much of the press continues to brand her the "Material Girl," a full 14 years after she recorded--but did not write--a song by that name. The depiction is about as mindless as calling John Lennon "the Love Me Do Boy" in 1980.
If Madonna's much-hyped "reinventions" of the past were basically shallow image manipulations, the changes heralded by her new album, Ray of Light, seem to cut much deeper. For the first time, one can sense that a new sensibility has taken over Madonna's work, that she's made an album that wouldn't have been possible earlier in her career.
Among other things, the album represents Madonna's belated rapprochement with the world of techno. This is a bit surprising, considering that only two years ago Madonna dismissively told Bob Guccione Jr. that "techno equals death." Her only previous excursion into this realm, with the Bjsrk-Nellee Hooper title song to her 1994 Bedtime Stories album, found Madonna stiff and ill at ease in her trippy ambient surroundings.
In fact, throughout Madonna's career, it's been fascinating to watch as she's been credited with bold artistic risk-taking, even as her music has been relentlessly safe and tame. It's almost as though her penchant for provocative videos and potty-mouthed TV appearances has colored the public's interpretations of her songs, investing the tunes with meanings they never had. If you think about it, "Express Yourself" was a completely innocuous pop song about self-expression that only seemed controversial because we associated it with a video where Madonna grabbed her crotch and found herself chained to a bed. If you'd only known Madonna's work from the radio, you'd probably view her as a slightly more libidinous Gloria Estefan, a predictable pop craftswoman who makes slick, meaningless hit records. You'd also have an easier time detecting Madonna's persistent weakness for sappy ballads, which have increasingly dominated her career: "Crazy for You," "Oh Father," "This Used to Be My Playground," "Rain," "I'll Remember," "Take a Bow," "You'll See" and the particularly hideous "You Must Love Me" from Evita.
On Ray of Light, we get the earnest Madonna, not the smirking libertine, yet somehow she wears her latent seriousness with a grace and an ease only rarely suggested by earlier recordings (such as the evocative "Bad Girl" on Erotica or "Secret" from Bedtime Stories. The stage is set early with the moody "Drowned World/Substitute for Love," where the most talked-about woman of her time laments that she found herself "in crowded rooms/feeling so alone" and lets us know that stardom will no longer take the place of love in her life. Madonna has engaged in this kind of therapy-speak before, but she usually employed it to preach self-love and the doctrine of independence. For perhaps the first time, on Ray of Light she acknowledges her need to tap into forces outside herself.
Those forces are both physical and spiritual, and on this album they truly feel inextricable. For instance, a cursory glance at the lyrics for "Skin" would lead you to consider it just the latest in a series of sexual come-ons, but in the hands of the new-model Madonna and her savvy production collaborator, British techno guru William Orbit, the song becomes a plaintive cry for salvation ("Kiss me I'm dying/Put your hand on my skin"). With the pulsating "Sky Fits Heaven," Madonna lifts the bridge melody from The Police's "Walking on the Moon" for a gorgeous treatise on the need to surrender to intuition. Even "Shanti/Ashtangi," a Sanskrit meditation tome which would have sounded ridiculous coming from Madonna a few years ago, stirs up an exultant Arabic dance drone.
Like all successful collaborations, the union of Orbit's swirling techno treatments and Madonna's lyrical and melodic instincts results in mutual enrichment. Madonna has never sounded as mystical and mysterious as she does in Orbit's hands, and Orbit's breakbeats and electronic textures sound richer than ever in Madonna's hands.
The combination of these two forces reaches its apex on the album's title song, arguably the finest hour of Madonna's entire recording career. Though the voice is vaguely familiar, it's like no Madonna we've ever heard before. Opening with a warm, ascending guitar rhythm, the tune quickly kicks into a driving house beat, with synth squiggles creating just the right interstellar ambiance. When Madonna roars into the chorus ("And I feel/Like I just got home"), you feel her exhilaration as she flexes the powerful new vocal muscles she gained from Evita. More than any of her new lyrics, the wild abandon of her falsetto on "Ray of Light" reveals a willingness to cut loose, to throw herself out into the universe with all her fragilities exposed.
If motherhood is the ultimate inspiration for Madonna's new aesthetic, it also results in the album's weakest cut, the highly sentimental "Little Star"--written for Madonna's baby daughter Lourdes. The following track, the startlingly autobiographical "Mer Girl," sends the album out with a bit of a whimper, its languid textures never matching the surreal dreamscapes of Madonna's lyrics.
But, a couple of minor missteps aside, Ray of Light is the most consistent, mature work of Madonna's career. The previous highlight, 1989's Like a Prayer, had some great moments, but too often its reach exceeded its grasp. On Ray of Light, Madonna's ideas have grown more complex, and she's found appropriately multidimensional music to convey them. This album might not "invent a new sonic language," as sycophantic MTV shill Kurt Loder has claimed, but it has widely expanded the vocabulary of Madonna's art. For now, that should be considered a big enough achievement.
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