Tuesday, March 23, 2010

#363: Ray Of Light- Madonna

Listened to: MP3

Madonna was THE woman of the 80’s. Everything she did drew cheerers, haters, and imitators. After scandalous pop tracks (“Material Girl”, “Like A Virgin”, “Like A Prayer”), an even more scandalous personal life (Sean Penn, a little book called Sex, deep-throating a bottle), and a Letterman appearance that may never be forgotten, Madonna was on a fast track to collapse, doomed to become a warning sign to future singers, about how the cutesy, foul mouthed pop star will never become anything more. Little did anyone know this woman was the queen of re-invention. Ray Of Light is considered one of Madonna’s greatest artistic achievements, and one of the best albums of the 90’s. With a more mature and focused sound than 80’s Madonna, she proved herself not just to be a peddler of shock and pop, but of art sand creativity as well.
The album opens on “Drowned World/Substitute For Love”, which from the first tones you can tell is not a traditional Madonna song. It’s ethereal, it’s gentle, it’s sensual, it wisps across the air of whatever room it plays in. The wind chimes, the electronic faint beats, everything comes together to say “This ain’t the lady you know”. “Swim” keeps that reserved, echoing sound to Madonna’s voice, in a song that, in a prior Mage incarnation would have been bouncy pop. After two damp, ethereal tracks, the album kicks into full, hardcore as it gets dance music with the title track, “Ray Of Light”. Now, who can forget that music video? How perfectly it worked with such an intense, upbeat, amazing track. Yeah, I said amazing. The instrumentation on this is great, and Madonna experiments vocally in such a proficient and fun way that it’s hard to argue that this album isn’t enjoyable. Just try not to dance when this track comes on. It’s as impossible as trying not to think of Madonna dancing in front of those varispeed clips in what might be one of the greatest short films of the past 20 years. “Ray Of Light” single-handedly ropes in even the most vehement opposition to at least consider this an “ok” album.

“Candy Perfume Girl” from it’s first notes brings a very different feel to this album, with beats that more resemble hip-hop than the meditative tones of “Drowned World/Substitute For Love”. I love the part in the middle where it drops out into carnival-like organ for just a few seconds, and then the music charges back in, and the electric guitars lend that hint of rock that I think Madonna always strived for a little bit. “Skin” keeps that electronic feel the whole album has, but enhances it even more here, so that Madonna’s vocals are nearly unheard, and once the dance-beat kicks in, Madonna’s voice just becomes another instrument. Once it gets to the chorus of “Do I know you from somewhere?”, her voice comes a little clearer, and you remember that Madonna isn’t just a provocateur and composer, but a very talented and emotive singer. Her voice can be like a siren song, drawing you in without any frail or frills. She doesn’t do those irritating R&B vocal runs every female singer seems to fall prey to, but instead sticks to simple melodies and makes them terrific. “Skin” is the longest track on the album, and by the midpoint, your almost convinced Madonna and Radiohead made a baby. “Nothing Really Matters” starts of with a soft, mystical vibe, and when the beat scomes in, it seems to almost slide in, as at least for me, your hypnotized by the vocals movements.

“Sky Fits Heaven” is another dance track, which is upbeat, fun, but not terribly unique when compared to the other tracks. “Shanti/Ashtangi” takes on a dark, Eastern tone, while still integrating the electronic sounds from earlier in the album, and creates a song you could meditate to if you weren‘t so busy dancing. This leads into “Frozen”, which goes back to being in English, but keeps that dark, Eastern vibe. “Frozen” is a track so good, it’s banned in Belgium (click the link), and marks a turning point for Madonna. The string orchestration on “Frozen” also finally breaks free of the solely-electronic nature of the album, which was starting to get a little tedious and grating. Madonna’s most confessional song on the album follows, entitled “The Power Of Goodbye”. Now this is one of my personal favorite tracks of hers, and the video is the first of hers I ever saw, at age 8, I believe. Even the electronic beats are softened, to let Madonna sing clearly and gently about being broken down and begging for release. “To Have And Not To Hold” keeps that soft, sensual, lamenting tone of the prior track, with a catchy, if poppy chorus, showing how Madonna, originally the poster child of bubble-gum pop, could skirt past pop without delving into it. “Little Star” seems like the lilting, tragic cousin of “Lucky Star”, a single Madonna released back when she was still a silly little pop star. The album closes on “Mer Girl”, a sensual ballad-like finale that hides away most of the electronic beats of it’s prior tracks, and cuts out all the instruments altogether at the end, showing us once again what Madonna turely is, a great and emotive singer.

So, yeah, I’m unashamed to admit that Ray Of Light is a great album, integrating electronic dance music without getting repetitive or annoying. Madonna proves on this album she’s more than just a pop singer, that she is a truly gifted and talented artist. I recommend giving this album a listen, you might be surprised how current it still feels, despite being 10 years old. Now, I’m not gonna make any comparisons between Ray Of Light-period Madonna and any artist out today, but I’m sure if you give Ray Of Light a listen, you can make those comparisons yourself.


See you guys tomorrow for #172: Every Picture Tells A Story by Rod Stewart.

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