Sunday, November 3, 2013

Madonna Lives Up To Her Hype With Ray Of Light

The Good: A solid dance-pop album, Generally decent vocals, music, and lyrics
The Bad: Works better as a collection of singles than as a cohesive album
The Basics: Madonna manages to impress me with her lyrics on a series of songs that only seem to fail when she mortgages the emotional resonance to get the listener to dance.

What makes a hit or a hit artist? The latter question may be answered simply by "staying power." Artists who endure are the ones who simply remain in the public's imagination and consciousness long enough and successfully enough that regardless of other trends in music at the time, the artist is able to market their own work. With Madonna's recent Confessions On A Dance Floor which has inexplicably sold 8 million copies worldwide - only the first single broke the Hot 100 in the U.S. - one might be doubting Madonna's relevance. I was recently taken to task after reviewing Bedtime Stories for neglecting to mention "Human Nature" a "hit" that only reached 46 on the Top 100. Regardless of that, Madonna had a commercial resurgence after the lukewarm sales of Erotica and Bedtime Stories (how we may consider 5 and 6 million units sold worldwide, respectively, lukewarm is only because of context), with Ray Of Light.

It's a good album, it's easy to see why it sold 14 million copies in the world, four million in the U.S. alone. Ray Of Light is a thirteen track album clocking in at an hour seven minutes. The album was released as the singles market essentially collapsed and success of singles was tracked by points as opposed to sale of physical singles (which were becoming produced less and less by 1998). Madonna seemed to know how to capitalize on that - I've long agreed she is a brilliant businesswoman - and Ray Of Light (the album) charted four singles in the U.S. and an additional one in Canada and Europe. It's fairly impressive these days when an artist can get three successful singles charting, but with Ray Of Light, Madonna did it. This album saw the mainstream hit singles "Frozen," “Ray Of Light,” "The Power of Good-bye" and the flop "Nothing Really Matters,” which peaked at 93 on the Hot 100, though it went to #1 on the Dance charts.

My point in this is that when Madonna reinvents herself, sometimes she does a great job. Ray Of Light is a weird reinvention that brings Madonna back to her dance roots with tracks like “Ray Of Light” and "Nothing Really Matters" and combines them with more mature pop ballads like "Frozen." As a result, Madonna sounds like . . . well, an adult, on tracks like "Swim."

Ray Of Light features Madonna's creative vision as she co-wrote and co-produced all thirteen song. While she does not play any instruments on Ray Of Light, she provides the vocals and they are decent. Indeed, on the album's opener, the slow, sad ballad "Drowned World/Substitute For Love," Madonna's voice is stark, underproduced and in the face of the listener. Honestly, it was hearing this song that I first truly realized that Madonna has the ability to sing.

Moreover, what Madonna is singing on this album is generally more personal and as a result, her ability to emote comes through better. On another of her slower songs, "Frozen," she powerfully and simply sings out "You only see what your eyes want to see / How can life be what you want it to be / You're frozen / When your heart's not open / You're so consumed with how much you get / You waste your time with hate and regret / You're broken / When your heart's not open." Madonna's ability to sing is coupled with poetics that actually say something! Indeed, songs like "Frozen" remind the listener how decent pop-rock music can be when it is well constructed. On tracks like "Frozen," Madonna's purpose is not simply to move the listener into dancing and she effectively says something.

Similarly, Madonna seems to have a better balance on most of the tracks on Ray Of Light than she has on other albums of hers that I've listened to. So, for example, one of the tracks that could have been a hit but was never released as a single, "Swim," has a decent pop beat with minimal production elements. The understated drums and the addition of a flute allow Madonna's voice to come to the forefront. And her song actually says something. "Swim" wonderfully expresses a sense of misery that the narrator is trying to cleanse themself of. Madonna sings "Comets fly across the sky / While the churches burn their preachers / We can't carry these sins on our back / Don't wanna carry anymore . . ." ("Swim") and because Madonna is trying to sing something that means something, she's successful at accenting what is important in her songs.

That's not to say Ray Of Light is devoid of flaws, far from it. The title track, “Ray Of Light,” is more or less your typical pop-dance song that is overproduced and whose purpose is mostly to convince the listener to move their body. But at least that song makes sense. Having listened to the album several times now, "Shanti/Ashtangi" continues to bewilder me. The song is not in English (it utilizes Sanskrit phrases) and it feels out of place and somewhat pointless on this album.

Amid Madonna singing about cleansing, day to day life, expectations of youth imposed by society ("Candy Perfume Girl"), and the importance of expressing the spirit we supposedly all have, Madonna throws in a random prayer song. On other albums, this might be seen as a desperate attempt to make something relevant and meaningful, but Ray Of Light overcomes the limitations of simple pop-rock to actually do that with the lyrics to most of its songs. Indeed, were it not for Madonna's obsession with putting lines like "Looking at my life / It's very clear to me / I've lived so selfishly / I was the only one / I realize / That nobody wins / Something is ending / Something begins" ("Nothing Really Matters") to a dance beat, this album could be a knockout of Madonna's lyrical and musical self expression.

In short, Ray Of Light reveals a Madonna whose only real failure is her obsession with production. "Skin" works fine as a dance track, but it's Madonna's obsession with creating dance tracks here that undermines the strengths of Ray Of Light. For a change, most of her lyrics are solid, expressive and interesting. On several of the tracks, Madonna actually creates a combination of music and lyrics that comes together lushly in a way that suggests she is an artist more than an entrepreneur.

It's ironic for someone with such business savvy as Madonna that when I sit and listen objectively to Ray Of Light, I see an artist who seems afraid. Madonna's Ray Of Light leaves the listener with the impression that she is afraid of producing an album that is all ballads, that is soulful in lyrics and music. She opts for the safe route with much of the album as far as creating dance tracks out of songs that are lyrically ballads.

That's not to say that even all of those attempts are bad. "The Power of Good-bye" is a ballad, which is accented by a strong dance beat behind the string arrangement. There she effectively fuses voice, music and even her desire to create something that can be danced to. "The Power of Good-bye," despite not breaking into the top ten on the Hot 100, remains one of the most potent Madonna hits and it illustrates how commanding Madonna may be over the genre.

So, why is she so obsessed with dancing?

Sigh. Regardless, Ray Of Light is a solid pop-rock album with a number of pop-dance songs and while the tracks may work independently, some of the way the tracks fall along the album cuts into the emotional resonance of the track prior or after. Still, it's the best I've heard from Madonna yet.

The best song is "Frozen," the low point is "Shanti/Ashtangi."

For other works by Madonna, please check out my reviews of:
Bedtime Stories
“Nothing Really Matters” (single)
Confessions On A Dance Floor


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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