Happy 20th Anniversary to Madonna’s seventh studio album Ray of Light, originally released in the UK March 2, 1998 and worldwide March 3, 1998.
More than any record before or after it, Madonna's Ray of Light (1998) captured the wonder of articulating a new sonic vocabulary—and the language of a life made new. The path to Madonna's seventh album had been patiently paved over a four-year period on the professional and personal ends.
From Bedtime Stories (1994) to her Golden Globe winning turn in 1996's Evita, Madonna was concentrating on craft versus shock. Slowly, the stain of (mostly) self-made controversies at the start of the 1990s began to lift. The birth of her daughter in October 1996 further nurtured the seed of a metaphysical muse inside Madonna. She had already begun practicing ashtanga yoga and studying Hinduism and Kabbalah—the latter a belief system based on the mystical interpretation of the Torah—and these outlets went on to reshape Madonna's life and art.
Slowly, in the spring of 1997, Madonna began scripting the songs for the record soon to find permanence as Ray of Light. The album's pace toward its eventual completion picked up when the singer-songwriter came into contact with British instrumentalist/producer/savant William Orbit. Much of the project emerged from their imaginations, but they made room at the table for Rick Nowels, Marius de Vries and Patrick Leonard, one of Ms. Ciccone's long running collaborative peers. Their gifts as writers and producers kept the sessions moving as Madonna began centering her influences on the LP.
Electronic music had been on Madonna's radar for some time, as far back as the ambient pop-soul gem “Rain.” Bedtime Stories took it a step further. Its first side served as a slight spillover for the urban-pop froth of Erotica (1992), albeit with an emphasis on softer tonality. The album's second side, specifically “Sanctuary” and “Bedtime Story,” were musically balmy and inorganic, their lyrical backdrops drawn from the purest emotional wanderlust. Madonna wanted to take that aural style and go the distance. With Orbit's encouragement, she had the space to do just that.
Sound manipulation is an essential factor to the album's many layers. Under Orbit and Madonna's direction, the music is extracted from natural and artificial provenances. Instruments—strings, guitar, flutes, sitar, tablas and a panoply of other percussion—partnered with endless samples and discernible global music touches make for a free-flowing, inviting collection of songs. The title track best exemplifies all of this; an explosive mix of guitar pop, electronica, and worldbeat, its groove lightly flirting with the dance floor.
Only one other song, the ruminative funk of “Nothing Really Matters,” gets closer to club affability and even then it's incidental. Yes, typical dance genre motifs are sidelined on Ray of Light, instead they're exchanged for alterna-pop flavors, best evidenced in “Candy Perfume Girl,” “Sky Fits Heaven,” and “Shanti/Ashtangi.” The latter composition is a stunning performance in Sanskrit chanting, which finds Madonna embracing the dance-pop departure technique that her foremother Donna Summer put to effective use during her Geffen Records residency.
The rest of the record is comprised of sprawling, ballad soundscapes, the grandeur of “Frozen” and “To Have and Not to Hold” are supported by Madonna's “new eyes” lyrically and vocally. Life is reborn for Madonna on Ray of Light, she extols its joy (“Ray of Light”) and faces its darkness (“Swim”) equally. Even her perspective on sexuality and attraction are recast on “Skin,” a compelling unification of the carnal and the spiritual. But, self-discovery breathes life into the set's opener “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” and its closer “Mer Girl,” which blurs fact and conceptual fiction when addressing Madonna's fears regarding love, motherhood and mortality. Her subdued vocal on “Mer Girl” fascinates in its barefaced contemplation. It's just one of the many forms her voice assumes on Ray of Light, making each song an experience all its own.
Ray of Light made its primary landfall in late February 1998 in Japan; remaining territories received it in early March. The album's life cycle was a whirlwind of charting singles (5) and across-the-board critical adulation that culminated in five Grammy nominations—she won three. As all of this was transpiring, Madonna was remarkably grounded and let the music speak for itself. It was the beginning of something new for the Queen of Pop, a truly golden age to be defined almost solely by the clarity and imagination of her recordings.
It feels as though more than 20 years have passed since Ray of Light's conception, especially when one takes into account that Madonna's recent releases have seen her drift farther into a self-imposed wilderness of her own making. It's clear that Ray of Light, and the subsequent age born from it, cannot return. In the end, Ray of Light was a tremendous moment in time when Madonna achieved total artistic transcendence for all the right reasons, nothing more, nothing less.
Editor’s Note: Read more about Harrison’s perspective on Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ album in his forthcoming book, ‘Record Redux: Madonna,’ available August 2018. His current books ‘Record Redux: Spice Girls,’ ‘Record Redux: Carly Simon' and 'Record Redux: Donna Summer' are available physically and digitally now.