Greetings, Glancers! I’ll get this out of the way at the outset – I love Ray Of Light. I listened to it quite a lot when it was first released and even though I have slagged Madonna after and before it was released, it still holds up as a great record. Or I think it does – I haven’t listened to it in years. It’s the first Madonna album I can remember being released; I was 15 at the time and hadn’t paid much attention to anything Madonna related beforehand other than her singles and videos. Now that I was a teenager I was actually earning and spending my own money on things and of course was more knowledgeable about music. Until roughly this age most of the albums I owned were either metal, hard rock, or Michael Jackson. I remember a lot of people in school talked about Ray Of Light – people who were exclusively into shitty dance music, rock kids, chart kids, etc. Madonna essentially kept herself relevant by tapping into a variety of sounds and styles and by above all releasing a bunch of great songs. Moving on…
‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love‘ is a fairly creepy sounding name and the song starts in a fairly creepy way – wind sounds, laser electronic sounds, some bloke speaking, until Madonna’s plaintive vocal flows in. When the beat comes in it all makes sense – the beat and overall sound is chilled, we get plenty of additional beats and backwards sounds. I can’t say it sounds dated now, there’s something old about it though. It did feel revolutionary at the time but I loved most and still do is how dynamic it is – instruments drop in and out, the song dissolves into momentary tangents, and at the core is a brilliant Madonna performance.
‘Swim‘ opens with some guitar. That’s another point which I always remember about the album – people see it as this big dance record, but it’s filled with guitar too and one of my friends who was just learning guitar at the moment always listened to this album specifically for the guitar parts. This is a pretty good album track, a funky mixture of riffs and warbling dance parts. Again the production is terrific, music building and withdrawing, and there’s always something new and dynamic happening to distract from an otherwise simple structure.
‘Ray Of Light‘ is the biggie, and it was a hit for years. This one does sound very 90s now and yet still has a modern flavour. I think that’s because today’s commercial pop and dance is so technically bland. This has energy, it flickers and bounces on many levels while today’s chart stuff feels flat and hollow – no depth to the structure or production. The music video is pure Trainspotting jittery nonsense though – good at the time but severely dated now.
‘Candy Perfume Girl‘ starts with electronic humming, then guitar, then wet beats, then assorted sounds and vocals. It’s very much your standard album track and has the same drum sounds and backing noise that appeared in hundreds of songs around the time. There’s still plenty to discover here, but it’s easily the weak link so far.
‘Skin‘ gets us back on track. It begins suddenly, yet is slow and smooth. The way the backing noises descend into a chaotic swamp of whispers and noise, and then how the fast beat suddenly comes in – this is very much my sort of dance music. I love the central vocal melody, again there is a tonne of atmosphere and smart production, and again the song never wants retain the same sound, varying and morphing as it goes. Great for night driving. Great for anything really.
‘Nothing Really Matters‘ is an atmospheric ballad. I almost dread to think what a song like this would have sounded like had she recorded it in an earlier era. The New Jack or 80s pop versions of this likely would have been a disaster. Don’t get me wrong, the drum beats for most of the song are too generic and weak, but everything is perfect – love the chorus, love the little piano and string moments. Yeah, just a pity about the beats.
‘Sky Fits Heaven‘ continues the atmosphere, bringing a more organ based ethereal sound. Again, I somehow don’t mind the fact that this is a dance track – let is be said I love dance music when it’s done right – it just so rarely is. This combination of William Orbit and Madonna though was just one of those moments when the stars are aligned. I’m not overly fond of the middle section here, at least not until it smooths out, but the rest is great, the beats are much better, the distorted guitar noise is fantastic, and I enjoy the little melodic callbacks to Till Death Do Us Part.
‘Shanti/Ashtangi‘ goes a little weird. This is definitely Madonna’s Revolver album – the most obvious example of her music becoming art and transcending, so it’s quite apt she throws in this Eastern based mess, just like The Beatles did. It’s fine but does come off as self-indulgent. I think the best part of the song is how people I knew would make up their own English translations for the lyrics. This was before all your internets and googles, kids!
‘Frozen‘ was always my favourite song from the album. I love atmospheric music – something a little chilling and emotional, and this hits all of those notes. It’s still fantastic now, and the video’s great too. It’s easily one of Madonna’s best vocals, easily contains some of her best melodies. I love the strings – goes without saying – I love the little instrumental pieces which return us to the verse either any time there is a pause or from the chorus. Mysterious, haunting, and unquestionably beautiful.
‘The Power Of Good-Bye‘ is another classic. It’s definitely a 90s track with those beats, but it’s a marvel. For me this one is all about the melodies, as pop music almost always is, and here verse and chorus are exceptional. It’s actually one of the more simple songs on the album, but it’s still dressed up in electronica and strings – it doesn’t need anything additional and it doesn’t need any part taken out – perfect the way it is. An interesting titbit (so much better than tidbit) – part of the verse melody is identical to a part of the Family Ness theme tune.
‘To Have And Not To Hold‘ comes in cold – moody, dark, with growling beats. I feel that in a previous era she would have gone the Spanish route for this one. I do prefer the chorus to the verse and as a whole the song doesn’t get me as much as others on the album. Still good, but in the bottom half for me.
‘Little Star‘ is Madonna’s dedication to her new born bambino. I think. It opens as if it is going to be some super fast dance track but once the vocals start it’s all very slow and tender, even though the backing beats are moving quickly. It is mostly plain and the melodies don’t do much for me even if the sentiment is moving. I feel like this one should have been a more traditional ballad with a changed melody, but what do I know. I do know this one is too long, even if some of the string pieces near the end are lovely.
‘Mer Girl‘ closes the album, beginning like a phone off the hook – a tantalizing, unfinished conversation. An ending both slow and sudden. There is a lot of silence in this song but still there is a lot going on musically. Lyrically, this is basically a short story, melodically it isn’t very interesting. It’s an experimental end – fine, but I prefer albums to close with a bang.
Even though there are some songs that feel like standard album tracks and don’t do much for me, the highs on the album are such sky-scraping highs that they reach far beyond any parts you may not be so keen on. Add to that fact that those highs far outweigh the lows (and that the lows are still fine) and we have probably Madonna’s best album. It’s this and Like A Prayer that we’ll still be talking about in a hundred years. Well, I will – you’ll all be gone. This is one of the best albums of the 90s, and it’s basically the last thing Madonna did that I liked. Having said that I have heard very little, if any, of her last few albums so my next few posts will be interesting for me. I still hold out hope that someone who can make an album as brilliant as this can still make a few good songs per album, so I expect to hear a few more favourites before we reach the end of our journey.
Ray Of Light – were you around when it was released? Where do you rank it beside Madonna’s other albums? Let us know in the comments!
Nightman’s Playlist Picks: Drowned World/Substitute For Love. Ray Of Light. Frozen. Skin. Nothing Really Matters. Sky Fits Heaven. The Power Of Goodbye.