It was probably hard to imagine Madonna only being halfway through her career. Twenty years after it, it’s a shame so few projects would match its heights.
With more than a decade under her belt in 1997, Madonna felt the need to reinvent herself. Her sixth album, 1994’s Bedtime Stories, was an R&B laden excursion designed to soften her public image from the explicit provocateur of Erotica into someone more nuanced and palatable. It housed two of the best songs in her discography: the sultry “Secret” and the Babyface co-penned ballad “Take a Bow.” But after releasing the compilation Something to Remember and starring in Alan Parker’s musical Evita, the early recordings for her seventh album were still stuck in well-trodden territory. Babyface and Patrick Leonard helped her write new songs, but few of them were doing anything new for an artist who’d been in the spotlight long enough to know stagnation is akin to death for a pop star. So, she had to mix things up.
On 1998’s Ray of Light, Madonna, teaming up with English electronic producer William Orbit, put together the most mature and experimental release yet, one that added miles to the race track ahead of her career. It’s not that Madonna couldn’t have gotten away with recreating what had worked well in the past. She was just in a new world. She’d been taking vocal lessons to expand her range for Evita and just given birth to her daughter, Lourdes. This would be the first album to showcase the full breadth of her singing ability, as well as the first artistic statement she would make as a mother. The result was an impressive collection of songs that helped bring elements of electronic music into the mainstream while providing new dimensions to the Madonna persona.
Twenty years later, it’s easy to remember this as the “kabbalah” album, as it’s right around when Jewish mysticism and an all-consuming love of spirituality and yoga turned Madonna into the late ‘90s antecedent to Gwyneth Paltrow selling people avocado painkillers or whatever she foists on her GOOP followers. However strangely her new obsessions may have come off in the media then, the music isn’t as overtly influenced by her faith as would seem. “Shanti/Ashtangi” infamously adapts sanskrit texts from 8th century philosopher Adi Shankara, and to this day it remains as awkward and ill-advised as it did then. “Sky Fits Heaven,” co-written with Leonard, fares better, another in a long list of songs engaging with her catholicism. But the album’s highlights are more intimate explorations of mood and tone then misguided attempts to convert listeners to new faiths.
“Swim,” for instance, is a perfect distillation of the album’s aesthetic. Its backdrop is decidedly trip hop influenced, with Eastern flutes and throbbing bass, but Madonna’s vocals and lyricism hues closer to a singer/songwriter’s clarity of thought. “Candy Perfume Girl,” co-written by Orbit and Susannah Melvoin, covers similar sonic territory, with a grungier edge and sludgy synths. Both songs see Madonna exploring new textures, both in Orbit’s instrumentals and the newly honed elasticity of her voice. Tracks like “Skin” and “Nothing Really Matters” pick up the pace, playing with faster tempos and more upbeat drum patterns, but neither is particularly dancey, though the latter comes closest, with its buoyant bassline and techno flourishes.
Unsurprisingly, the most club ready song on the album was also the most successful. The title track is a unique blend of trance, techno, and Eurodance, mixing the calculated bleeps and bloops of digital production with live guitar licks and the persistent, implacable sense that any room this song is playing in has been freed from gravity’s grasp. Madonna’s soaring vocals and the song’s sun-drenched aura act as clip on wings for the listener, levitating them up into the air at a steady pace before zipping them at lightspeed over a multicolor skyline, too much to take in, but just enough to keep you afloat. After two decades, the song hasn’t aged particularly well, sounding as it does like a wine mom culture redux of rave music. But in the context of the album itself, it’s a standout cut, one that proved Madonna would always find new and improved ways to get her audience to dance.
Perhaps the two best and most enduring songs on the album are also its most melancholy. “Frozen” remains one of Madonna’s best singles, marrying her peculiar gift for making sadness sound like a weapon to Orbit’s glitchy synths and cavernous drums. Also co-written by Leonard, it’s the track that shows the seams from the album’s initial false starts and the new life her collaboration with Orbit breathed into the proceedings. Released as the album’s fourth single, “The Power Of Good-Bye” isn’t quite as perfectly executed, but its potency can’t be denied, with hard strummed guitar chiming between layers of electronic reverb and synth bleed.
When Ray of Light was released, electronic music had yet to become du jour in mainstream music, so Madonna employing elements of the genre for her own artistic experimentation helped it to infiltrate suburban households otherwise unaware of the drug-addled underground clubs it had heretofore dwelled in. This dalliance with electronica would yield two more powerful albums for Madonna as well, as she would continue to mess around with unsung producers for 2000’s Music and 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor (The less said about 2003’s American Life, the better.)
Before this album’s release, it was probably hard to imagine Madonna only being halfway through her career. Twenty years after it, it’s a shame so few projects would match its heights.