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You see: Why Madonna’s Ray Of Light is her masterpiece 

Unlike almost every other Madonna album I purchased at the time of its release (ostensibly the 15-year period from 1990’s I’m Breathless to 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor*), I can remember exactly when and where I was when I picked up Ray Of Light.

It was Monday March 2, 1998 and I had sauntered down to the flagship HMV store on London’s Oxford Street to pick up a copy of the shiny and new CD. While I was still scanning the track listing on the back cover, the actor Scott Neal** breezed in and grabbed his copy quicker than, well, a ray of light, actually.

A quarter-century later and Ray Of Light is still the only Madonna album I enjoy as an immersive listening experience from beginning to end with absolutely no regrets, or skipping tracks. Even now, it still sounds ambitious, contemporary and not demonstrably derivative like the disco-inspired Confessions. 

Though how much of the success of this remarkable record is down to maverick maestro William Orbit’s sonic squiggles is a moot point, frankly. Still, one imagines even Wills knows there‘s a word called ‘discrete‘ that is absolutely nothing to do with being discreet. Separate yourself, Stupid Madge!

After sessions with Bedtime Stories contributor Babyface fizzled out, the Michigan machine sought out the cult English producer best known for a smattering of understated ambient works. Madonna was drawn to Orbit, as Zen-Madonna said in a slightly clumsy way, for “fusing a kind of futuristic sound but also using lots of Indian and Moroccan influences and things like that.” Opting for cohesion over confusion, he would end up co-producing every song on her eighth full length album but one, giving the LP a unified tonal consistency missing from many other Madonna records.

Orbit pushed Ciccone into a bold new musical direction that resulted in an innovative and experimental fusion of sounds that boasts synths that don’t sound like synths, guitars that don’t sound like guitars, and, hell, Madonna that doesn’t even sound like Madonna. 

Rightly regarded as her masterpiece magnum opus, Orbit’s trip-hoppy techno-cycles of bubbly analogue synths and distorted guitar licks perfectly supplement the elasticity and versatility of Madge’s then-newly-trained vocal cords. 

Fifteen years on from her debut album, the singer had finally learned how to sing — helped enormously by the training she underwent for her role as Eva Perón in the movie musical Evita. Though that previous project was negated by the schlocky MOR material on offer, courtesy of the hideous Andrew Lloyd Webber.

There’s absolutely nothing middle of the road about Ray Of Light, and it’s all the better for it.

With culture-shaping nods to psychedelic acid-pop disco, and new age dance acts of the day such as Björk, Faithless and Massive Attack, ROL remains Madonna’s densest, deepest exploration of avant-garde electronica.

In 1996 Madonna became a mother for the first time, giving birth to her daughter Lourdes. Marking the moment Material Girl evolved into the Maternal Girl, she addressed that life-changing experience on two of Ray Of Light‘s most satisfying songs, the sweetly endearing Little Star (“my one super sentimental song“) and, even better, its opening track and third single, Drowned World/Substitute For Love.

The latter is a moody downtempo ballad that quotes Rod McKuen while exploring epiphanies about fame and family. There was a sense the new Madonna was a much more grounded character (for now, at least), someone who had undergone much soul searching and almost rejecting her previous existence. Of course, that wouldn’t last:

“I got pregnant, and the whole idea of giving birth and being responsible for another life put me in a different place. People have been obsessed with the idea that I am always reinventing myself, [but] I’d rather think that I’m slowly revealing myself.”

If you didn’t know already, the previous 45 and title track of Madge’s mystic reinvention started out as Sepheryn, a bluesy travellers’ folk tune recorded by British duo Curtiss Maldoon in 1971; the clubby rejig she created with Orbit finds the singer in a celebratory tech-frenzy, full of laser arpeggios and sirens that move with the silvery magnetism of ocean fish. 

Trailed by the wonderfully spare, atmospheric Frozen (which gave La Ciccone her first chart-topping single in the UK since Vogue eight years earlier), Madge’s ‘comeback’ 45 was live-premiered on the BBC’s National Lottery show and was a real revelation, sounding unlike anything this shapeshifting diva had ever done before. Creating a mystical forest of sonic enchantment — sweeping strings and all — Frozen possesses an almost operatic grandeur, and never fails to give the chills.

From the skittering Skin to the ethereal Mer Girl, Ray Of Light is a Kabbalah-coded ode to divine femininity with a racing pulse; body music for the embodied consciousness, looking forward and rarely behind.

For a brief shining moment, Madonna became the grown-up sage of synth pop, though I remember being utterly gobsmacked when I interviewed the Pet Shop Boys — prior to their Whitney-copping disco ball-baring transformation of 2006’s Sorry, obviously — that Neil Tennant didn’t much care for Ray Of Light: “Too many ballads,” he told me, sniffly, after declaring he wasn’t going to buy Madge’s then second greatest hits collection GHV2. 

“But, I countered,“Barbara Charone will probably send you a copy of the album anyway, Neil.”

“Actually, Barbara will probably send me a copy of the album,” he laughed, slightly embarrassed. “I’d like a Madonna album with Holiday and Music on it.”

He got his wish with the Celebration set before the decade was out. And it’s that singles comp that the increasingly unhinged modern Madonna is looking to for inspiration for her upcoming tour later this year. 

Will I go? Will I bugger. I‘m washing my pair that day.

Steve Pafford

* As a journalist there came a point after Ray Of Light where the aforementioned Barbara Charone (friend of Neil Tennant and Madonna’s UK PR) sent me several Madge albums as advance promos, including, ironically, GHV2 and American Life.

** I reminded Scott Neal, handsome bottom-baring twink of Beautiful Thing and much more, when we met properly during Mardi Gras 2014, at Stonewall on Sydney‘s Oxford Street, freakily. He was amazed I remembered something so fleeting from 16 years prior, and I was amazed he actually knew who I was. “You’re friends with Charlie Condou, aren‘t you. It’s a small world when you’re gay.

Causing a Commotion: 30 Stupid Things Madonna’s Done is here

She’s Madonna: Her 30 Greatest Singles is here

Bitch, She’s Madonna: the Steve Pafford review The Sun scrubbed is here

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