'Ray Of Light'
An album fuelled by new collaborators and the search for lasting peace...

“And I feel like I just got home”, the iconic wailed hook from the title track of Madonna’s seventh studio album serves as an ideal summation of the album.

‘Ray Of Light’ is an awakening both spiritually and musically. It’s the sound of Madonna finding herself and her place in the world after decades of chaos and uncertainty. At peace with herself and her desire to push her music forward, Madonna produced the most raw, emotional and personal album of her whole career. It’s a remarkable achievement.

The record is a triumph in numerous ways. It is her biggest selling album since her 80s imperial period and is bettered only by ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘True Blue’. Ultimately the album has gone on to sell 16 million copies worldwide. A staggering performance for an experimental collection that shouldn't really work.

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When she arrived at ‘Ray Of Light’ Madonna was at a career crossroads. Her 80’s imperial phase was over and her more provocative and alluring work like 1992’s ‘Erotica’ and its accompanying Sex book was unfairly maligned by a sceptical public seemingly tiring of Madonna’s insatiable need to push the envelope.

The mid 90’s featured big hits and consistent success but they were often ballads and dramatic torch songs culminating in her successful turn as Eva Peron in Evita. 1994’s ‘Bedtime Stories’ though, does point the way towards ‘Ray Of Light’s’ electronic textures, you can hear it in the subtle trip-hop rhythms helped by Bjork producer and Bristol Wild Bunch alumni Nellee Hooper.

It was to be another British producer though who would give ‘Ray Of Light’ its distinctive electronic palette. William Orbit was a name familiar to Madonna. Indeed, he remixed a few of her singles going right back to 1990’s ‘Justify My Love’, and impressed her with his inquisitive musical mind and knack for harnessing the electronic sound that she was so enthralled by. The two became close collaborators..

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Still though, the album shouldn’t have worked. The public had settled into Madonna as classy musical singer and graceful balladeer. They didn't want any of this silly pop stuff anymore. It was time to shake things up and Madonna responded with a transformative leap forward.

Previous Madonna records could often by subsumed by the force of her gigantic personality. Here though, she is vulnerable and reflective and you’re right there with her. ‘Ray Of Light’ is the first album she recorded after the birth of her daughter Lourdes so it’s no surprise that a strong maternal nature runs through the album.

One of the most tender moments is the sweet, lilting lullaby ‘Little Star’ dedicated to her then two year old child. There’s a heartfelt honesty present here that was largely absent before. All the artifice and brashness has been stripped back in favour of a calmness and emotional clarity. “Nothing really matters, love is all you need...”

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It’s not blissful happiness though. There’s an eeriness and desolate feel to much of the album especially on the stunning single ‘Frozen’. A huge gothic pop symphony it singles a defiant step change from dance pop to something altogether darker and weirder. ‘Ray Of Light’ can be seen as a rejection to her past. The subdued reflection of opening track ‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’ sees her outlining her newfound spirituality, “I traded fame for love”, “It was just a silly game”.

What we’re left with is a clear vision for a new way forward. Madonna is no less subversive and compelling but her creativity is now channelled through intense emotions to make something truly touching.

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This is Madonna though and there’s still bangers. She can never leave the club behind. The title track is a careering tour de force featuring her most striking vocal and ‘Nothing Really Matters’ is a tightly honed club jam. Elsewhere, ‘Sky Fits Heaven’ soars into the stratosphere powered by Orbit’s buzzing trance sounds.

Despite the electronic hues and experimental sounds fittingly the most striking thing about ‘Ray Of Light’ is its most human quality. Madonna’s voice has never sounded better. Honed by intense vocal training for her role in Evita, her voice is strong and pure. Every syllable is perfectly enunciated giving a sharp emotional candour to the organic beauty of centrepiece ballad ‘The Power Of Goodbye’ in an album full of heartstopping moments, this is its peak.

20 years on ‘Ray Of Light’ is recognised as something of a career renaissance. Leaving the past behind it was Madonna forging a new path one that would lead her to even more success and two more decades of invention, idealism and creation. It stands as a document of a distinct moment in her life. A moment when she took stock of everything and decided things were going to be a bit different but she was still going to lead the way. She finally returned home and found lasting peace.

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Words: Martyn Young

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