Madonna-Ray of Light Carwreck Archives #5 May 1998

This is another off the wall review from VMag, May 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Five of a look at the Carwreck Archives. These pieces were written for VMag, a music and arts magazine from the late 1990’s until the early 2000’s. Home to some pretty amazing writers, all under the patient watch of editor Murphy, one of the best of the best. Some reviews were quick hits, some were downright strange.

After getting hired for faxing the magazine a single sentence, Murphy asked for another review for the May 1998 issue to go with the Ani Difranco one I’d submitted. This one ended up as the lead review for that issue. It’s truly amazing that  this record still stands up pretty well today, 18 years later. 

Ray of Light Madonna.png

Madonna -Ray of Light (Maverick/WB)

Once upon a time, there was a little blonde girl who fell down a rabbit hole. At the bottom of the hole was a room full of mirrors, and every mirror that the little girl looked into had a different reflection. Identities swirled around her as she pirouetted in the center of the room, finally stopping in front of one. ‘Goodness me’ she exclaimed, regarding herself in the mirror, “…a techno princess!”

Madonna’s long route to 1998 has been fraught with a multiple array of personalities both divergent and occasionally embarrassing.  The common denominator to these changes is her glomming on to the latest fad, thereby appearing current and hip.

The electronica boom, and the ensuing crossover success of Bjork and Portishead in this field has not escaped the constantly scanning eye of Madonna. Attempting at first to enlist Prodigy (of  Smack My Bitch Up fame) to produce her new record (who politely declined with a terse ‘Fuck off’), her searchlights descended upon William Orbit, whose techno resume was sufficiently solid enough to inject a smidgen of credibility into this project.

The result, however derivative, is fairly successful. The key to judging any Madonna release is the question: “Would you really ever listen to this  outside of a dance club?” That most people’s answer will be ‘yes’ is  going to puzzle a lot of folks. I hate to use the words ‘Madonna’ and ‘maturity’ in the same sentence, but the new post-techno format elicits a strikingly reflective and thoughtful side to her that most would think never existed.

The opening cut, ‘Substitute For Love‘, strikes a brooding mood immediately–awash in the thick echoes of midrange and muted breakbeats so currently in vogue in the Bjork and Portishead camps, it’s a strangely heartfelt meditation, bordering on –dare I say?—SPIRITUALITY. A spiritually dreamy trance-like state permeates the album. Indo-trance pop influence bubble under the techno veneer, most evident in the piece ‘Shanti Ashtangi’. This song (and much of the album) is strongly reminiscent of the pioneer of the trance pop genre, Sheila Chandra and Monsoon. Spiritual influences dart in and out of songs-oops, there she goes again, apologizing for being shallow and self-centered for the last fifteen years. (Nothing Really Matters)

Although Ray of Light is fairly strong all the way through (the exuberant title track and the quirky ‘Skin‘ in particular), the musical reference points on the album are symptomatic of the problem in Madonna’s recent work. Her innovative strengths seem to have faded into the background, and her talents have shifted to successfully latching on to others and adapting their work to her own ends. Sometimes the result is disastrous (Bedtime Stories, I’m Breathless), but this time Madonna-with William Orbit–has crafted a highly listenable, laid back journey through the current looking glass.


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