Ray of Light
Madonna's first post partum studio album signals a decided change in the Material Girl's sonic signature. Unfortunately, it's not a change for the better.
It must have sounded good on paper: Madonna enlisted electronic artist/producer (and past Madonna remixer) William Orbit, as well as her old hitmaker Patrick Leonard to put together her first regular studio album since 1994's tepid Bedtime Stories. Perhaps just the team to create a good powerhouse dance music album? Add to that the fact that she's spent the past few years signing some pretty adventurous guitar bands to her Maverick label, and you have to think that maybe this album would include some songs based around crunchy, danceable guitar riffs? You might think all these influences would push Madonna back in a vibrant direction after 1992's uneven Erotica and yawn-inducing smooth urban funk of Bedtime Stories, right?
The endless, numbing drum thuds and ambient warbles of Ray of Light had me nearly sleeping the first time I played it within a half hour. Out of 13 attempts at mixing her silky girl pop vocals with sterile club techno loops, Madonna and Orbit only really come up with a couple winning tracks, the best being the atmospheric album opener "Drowned World/Substitute for Love." Here the moody keyboard keenings and stylish acoustic guitar break perfectly position Madonna for a quiet but stirring vocal delivery.
But on the rest?
Lots of people are doing cool techno with lots more charisma. For female fronted ambient techno that doesn't act as a cure for insomnia, listen to albums by Bel Canto or Wild Strawberries or even some of Sarah McLachlan's songs. Better yet, Madonna should listen to them. Those artists successfully take cool techno backdrops and make memorable songs with them. Madonna has only managed to make blurry background noise.
Of course, if you do want background music with a mod, techno sound, you could find worse albums to listen to. These aren't all bad songs. There's lots of "stuff" going on in the background, as Orbit tosses in percolating synthesizer bleeps and echoes and galloping bass loops. But Madonna sounds as if she's singing in a deep cave — most of these songs are nothing more than rhythm soundscapes with Madonna's reverb-drenched vocals slurring about on top. She rarely offers any lyrical or melodic hooks to make these memorable, hummable pop songs. This is a CD of club mix filler.
There's a pretty lullabye to her baby in "Little Star" with which most parents will immediately identify ("God gave a present to me/made of flesh and bones...never forget who you are/little star/shining brighter than all the stars in the sky"). And there's a dramatic string and echo-drenched single in "Frozen." But most of Ray offers little Light. "Candy Perfume Girl" is particularly vapid and "Shanti/Ashtangi" (a Yogi chant) comes across as pretentious and boring. In a recent interview with MTV's Kurt Loder, Madonna called her new persona Veronica Electronica and boasted that her old material was "neanderthal," a version of herself she can hardly stomach anymore.
A listen to the often tedious grooves of Ray of Light and a read of the attached lyrics leaves one scratching their head trying to determine exactly what makes this a more "mature" effort than her past works. Musically, it's about as exciting as the background music in the Adler Planetarium. And lyrically...aside from some heavy handed social comments in "Swim," ("children killing children while the.../students rape their teachers/comets fly across the sky/while the churches burn their preachers") there's no indication that Madonna has grown as a poet. The opening to "To Have and Not To Hold" has a rhyme structure and sentiment worthy of a sixth grader with a crush: "to have and not to hold/so hot yet so cold/my heart is in your hand/and yet you never stand/close enough for me to have my way/to love but not to keep/to laugh but not to weep" And in "The Power of Good-bye" she sings "Your heart is not open so I must go/The spell has been broken...I loved you so/Freedom comes when you learn to let go/Creation comes when you learn to say no."
These songs make "Lucky Star" and "Vogue" sound like college-level philosophy treatises. Musically, the closest she comes to her old catchy dance confections is in "Nothing Really Matters," a chirpy little mix with a constantly moving bassline and splashes of piano and strings. Ultimately, though, given a different producer, this would have been an even more radio friendly track; Orbit throws all sorts of burping, bleeping electronic distractions into what could have worked as a more straightforward dance attack.
As for the influence of the guitar bands she's keen on signing to Maverick? They haven't helped Madonna find the cool edginess she seems to be looking for on this album. There are some guitar grinds tossed into these mixes, but they are background noise, nothing more. And while Leonard normally writes radio perfect ballad hits ("Like a Prayer," "Live to Tell," "I'll Remember"), whatever pop sense he contributed to the handful of co-written tracks on this album is buried beneath layers of artificial dance mix effects and endless drum cycles.
Orbit's wash-of-synth production turns Ray of Light into one long trance dance. Madonna should have called this album Bedtime Stories II.
Whoever still has their eyes open at the end wins.