Madonna-Ray of Light

Ray of Light
Maverick/Warner Bros.

SHE'S BEEN A sex symbol, a pop sensation, a sex symbol, an entertainment mogul, a sex symbol, the ultimate celebrity and mistress of all media, and (drumroll please) a sex symbol. But now, just when it seems impossible to view Madonna as anything but a fully formed institution, she challenges us to see her as something completely different: an artist. Even if you like her, that one may be hard to swallow, especially in light of the "Like A Prayer" video. But never underestimate Madonna's power of persuasion. By nearly all critical accounts, Ray of Light--Madonna's first album of new material since 1994's Bedtime Stories, and her first since becoming a mother--is her richest, most accomplished record yet. And with some qualifications, I'd have to concur.

While Ray of Light is being tagged as Madonna's big leap into the electronica wading pool, it's important to note two things: First, her best music, from "Holiday" to "Vogue," has always been dance music; and second, her collaborator, William Orbit, is no Chemical Brother. Though it has all the latest blips, bleeps, and crackles, Ray of Light is still largely an adult album that manages to stay well within the realm of Madonnaica. Orbit's tasteful sound constructions provide Madonna with her most adventurous--and hippest--musical backdrop ever. And what's more, the arrangements and production are understated enough to highlight an even bigger development: Fresh from singing lessons on the Evita set, Madonna's voice--in range, depth, and clarity--has never been stronger.

But larger pipes don't necessarily make for deeper, truer music. Never a master lyricist, Madonna's words have worked best when they're practically slogans ("Vogue," "Express Yourself"). This time she goes for emotional depth, and even tries her hand at ethno-techno mysticism ("Shanti/Ashtangi"). But she often stumbles. The tone conveyed on songs like "Nothing Really Matters"--a smug "look how wise I am now" testimonial--is a self-centered pat on the back that belies her claims of newfound altruism. It's enough to make you assume that our material girl is setting her sights on becoming the center of our spiritual world.

Which begs the question: Do we want her there?

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