20 years after its release, “Ray of Light” remains my favorite Madonna album ever. Those which came after it had their merits, but this one is unforgettable in how the famous singer gets personal about the changes she was going through in life. Recorded after she did the film version of “Evita” and before she got married to film director Guy Ritchie, “Ray of Light” captures her as she enters the most important role of her life, being a mother.
When Madonna gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Lourdes, the media went into their typical frenzy and called it one of the best career transformations ever. But in the opening track of “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” she is at her most personal in describing how unfulfilling the realm of fame is for her. It certainly pales in comparison to her becoming a mother, a role she always wanted to take on in real life. Listening to her here and on another track entitled “Little Star,” there’s no doubt of how seriously Madonna takes the role of being a mother. Her own mother passed away when she was very young, but she sounds determined to be there for her daughter no matter what, and to never leave her while she is young.
Madonna worked on “Ray of Light” with noted English musician William Orbit who is well known for his contributions to the world of electronica music. This allowed Madonna to go in a different musical direction and not repeat herself, and this is one of the things we love about her. Her pop music aesthetic melded wonderfully with electronic music to create seductive and enticing beats which made me want to listen to this album over and over again.
The most popular song is of course the title track which is one of her most energetic songs ever. Fueled by a propulsive beat which never lets up, Madonna sounds like she has found a new thrill out of life, and it excites us for her to take us on her journey as a result. This remains one of the most memorable songs on any album she has ever done.
“Ray of Light” also has a brilliant seductive quality to it thanks to songs like “Candy Perfume Girl” and “Skin.” The soothing sounds of these tunes put us in a welcome state of ecstasy which we live to experience. This is Madonna at her most alluring, and Orbit’s electronic music puts us in the right frame of mood for it.
Another memorable song from this album is “Frozen.” This is a most emotionally piercing love song as it describes someone who is not as emotionally open as they should be in a relationship. It’s moving and has lost none of its power in making us aware of what it takes to keep the bond we have with our significant other growing.
Other songs like “The Power of Good-Bye” and “To Have and Not to Hold” illustrate the emotional damage brought about by a breakup. Anyone who’s been through it knows how it feels, and Madonna captures the shattering emotion it produces to memorable effect. These are among the more solemn tracks on this album.
“Little Star” is a song which is sung directly to Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes, who was barely a year or two old when this album was released. Now when musicians sing songs to their just born children, they can seem either incredibly moving or unforgivably cheesy. Tommy Lee overdid it on Motley Crue’s “Generation Swine” with a song about his son Brandon, but the late Scott Weiland fared better when he sang “A Song for Sleeping” which is on Stone Temple Pilots’ “Shangri-La Dee Da” album. Madonna manages to find the middle road between those songs with this one, and the end result feels very honest and to the point.
In many ways, Madonna’s “Ray of Light” has a timeless quality which makes this album as popular today as it was upon its release. Many of her other albums such as “Like a Virgin” or “Erotica” have not fared as well because they were of a certain time which has long since passed us by, but this particular record shows her at a moment of total vulnerability we will never forget her going through. Even after all these years, it remains her most compelling album.