Madonna's Ray of Light has long been one of my favorite albums--the kind of pop culture comfort food that I turn to when I am hurting, need some escape, or simply want to savor something familiar. I woke up to music sometime during 1998. That is, I became I real music fan that year, buying CDs and listening to them on my Discman on the way to middle school. The late 90s were an interesting time for music, when electronica, alternative music, and pop were intersecting in the top 40, on MTV, and on the radio. They were also a surprisingly spiritual time in music. (Was this because of the impending New Millennium?) Ray of Light epitomizes this period. It is an arty album about spiritual questioning and hunger, but it is also a human and hooky album with beautiful sonic textures and moving autobiographical elements.
The lyrical content on Ray of Light could be considered Madonna's most astute and direct. Much of the record is about motherhood and romance, but Madonna observes these experiences with a warm-hearted reflectiveness. On "Drowned World/Substitute for Love," she considers the value of trading in one's career for time with loved ones, and on "Nothing Really Matters," she delivers the line, "Love is all we need. / Everything I give you / All comes back to me." In part, this is a meditation on karma, but more interestingly, it's a meditation on give and take within a relationship--success comes through teamwork. Yet, the heart of the album is the extravagantly joyful title track, during which the singer yelps, "And I feel like I just home / And I feel..." while a beat pulses under her as if she's flying through the air. It's a breathless song, ecstatic with hope.
The album's more autobiographical moments are also surprisingly moving. Madonna's penultimate track, "Little Girl," is a sweet ode to her daughter, who she calls her "little star" and a present from god "made of flesh and bone." During the song, she tells her daughter to "never forget how to dream, butterfly." It's about as soft and loving a track as there can be. The closing song, "Mer Girl," serves as the inverse, considering the death of Madonna's mother and how since that loss, she has run, constantly "looking for me." Madonna has often been characterized as hard and calculating, but such openness on "Mer Girl" gives context to that head-on determination.
Not only does the album boast rich lyrical content, but also provides beautiful settings for those lyrics and the best vocal performances of Madonna's career. Most of this production is the handy-work of William Orbit, who knows how to use instruments, beats, and electronics to keep the album plugging along, while still maintaining it's emotional resonance. "Frozen" smartly utilizes strings, live percussion, and the repetition of Madonna humming in the background to liven up the chilly drums. "Sky Fits Heaven" has a whizzing electronic effect that is periodically faded in and out, giving the feeling of speeding down the highway--a fitting choice for a song boasting the hook, "Traveling down this road / Watching the signs as I go / Think I'll follow the Sun." And "Power of Goodbye" makes good use of kick drum, echo effect on the vocal, triangle, and acoustic guitar to create an ethereal exploration of loss and rebirth.
Ray of Light is a brilliant album--the kind of focused pop art that so rarely comes along. Madonna fans often seem to be divided into two camps--those that think Like a Prayer is her best work, and those that side with Ray of Light. I am a constituent of the latter opinion. Ray of Light is the kind of thoughtful album that marries the sensualty of dance and electronica--music of the sex-drenched club floor--with reflections on forgiveness and self-discovery. The hybrid of these aesthetics is still a thrill to listen to.