#222: Ray of Light, Madonna
Happy New Year. I’m a little late on the ball here, but my last review marked the first anniversary of the publication of the article where I announce the series where I review Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
I’ve always been a New Year’s Resolution person, and this year, I knew I wanted to ramp up my storytelling skills. Album reviews are all well and good, but relying too much on research means that you’re running the risk of becoming encyclopedic. And since research is my happy place, I worry that my reviews have become too shallow.
So we’re trying a different approach and format.
I’m starting with Ray of Light, the weird Madonna album I never saw coming.
Maybe my view is colored by the last time we encountered Madge down at #138, The Immaculate Collection. (Which, by the way, was released in 1990, eight years before Ray of Light was released. God bless Madonna — how many artists can say that their seventh studio album is among the best albums of all time?)
That album sounded like Eighties pop. I was surprised to find that Ray of Light sounds more like Enya. She has a bit of a mysticism/world religion bent to it, not just in the lyrics but in the music — “Candy Perfume Girl” has Middle Eastern monk vibes, and “Shanti/Ashtangi” is the most fun Ashtanga prayer that I’ve ever heard. Even the whale noises on “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” felt vaguely religious to me.
My favorite song was “Swim,” which mixes this sunny, beachy guitar with a chorus about carrying “sins on my back.” Yet during the final song “Mer Girl” she “runs past the churches,” leaving all the religious iconography behind, becoming a religion of her own. (I know I said I was laying off the research but apparently Madonna went for a run in the rain and came across her mother’s grave when she was inspired to write this song. Come on, all great albums have back stories like that.)
Certain songs stuck out for different reasons: “The Power of Good-Bye” is the blueprint for Nineties Soft Girl Divas, a la Dido, and “Skin” is an earworm, even though I still hate the line Why do all the things I say sound like the stupid things I’ve said before.
And every single one felt danceable, even “Nothing Really Matters,” in which Madonna basically says, “Look at me, I’m Madonna, I have a baby!” But creepiness lives on the album too, from “Frozen” to the intro to “To Have and Not To Hold.”
Actually, when I first turned this one on, I felt a little ridiculous listening to the title song. But then I drove to my COVID booster shot appointment while listening to “Ray of Light,” and I felt! Like I just! Got! Home!
Anyway, it’s a great New Year’s album, even if you’re not Madonna and don’t have a baby. Happy 2022, everyone! Something is ending/and something begins.
Other Highlights: “Sky Fits Heaven” is an amazing title for a song. “Little Star” made me uncomfortable (I think it was the whispering) but it also got stuck in my head all day.
IS RS FULL OF IT? Yes.