Thirty-nine-year old Madonna Louise Ciccone could easily have hacked out an album of Babs-and-Celine-style schmaltz and laughed all the way to the ashram. Instead, says Barry Walters, she delivered Ray Of Light, the riskiest, most revealing record of her career.
When a musician rooted in an underground sensibility achieves massive success, she has three options: She can stick to what she knows until the public grows bored and inspiration dries up, she can maintain her popularity by sucking up to the latest commercially guaranteed corny-ass formula, or she can leap into the aesthetic unknown, hoping that her instincts carry her and fans follow.
A naturally restless soul, Madonna couldn’t have selected option number one: she would have gone insane from the repetition. She could have — like plenty of her superstar peers — chosen option two. It would have been easy for the Material Girl to hook up with Puff Daddy, raid her old workout tapes for samples, employ some soon-to-be-shot-at rappers from street cred, and watch the Benjamins march on in. Madonna-meets-Puffy-meets-Ronco-disco-meets the Wu-Tang-Clan? You know the youth of America will be all over that shit.
As much as she’s perceived to be pop’s shrewdest businesswoman, Madonna has rarely taken he most direct route to the bank. Working deviance-phobic nerves with the queer boys and girls of her Sex Book was not exactly playing it safe. There has to be a surer way of getting paid than creating a decade and a half’s worth of gay nightlife soundtracks. She’s obviously made a few unpopular cinematic choices.
So the only real option for the sole ’80s icon still thriving in the ’90s was to make the kind of record she puts on her boom box — a blend of haunted singer/songwriter introspection and beat-savvy electronic exotica that may not play in Topeka, if U2’s Pop is any indication.
In doing so, Madonna still pushes buttons. Just as she once sang that she wasn’t sorry for sharing her erotic fantasies, Madonna does not apologize for turning inward and employing the language she’s learned while journeying to the center of her still-firm chakras. On her new album, Ray Of Light, she sings about karma, quotes mystics, changes Sanskrit as she would in her yoga class, kisses emotionally stunted lovers good-bye, and croons a lullaby to daughter Lourdes as if her warble breathed butterfly kisses. Her brazen vulnerability is destined to be someone else’s touchy-feely-trendy hogwash: Madonna has not lost her ability to endear and annoy, and in its digitized, navel-gazing way, Ray Of Light is Madonna’s most radical, mask-free work.
The comparatively sexless tunes take their time to generate heat, but the sonic bacchanalia crafted by William Orbit [and, on four tracks, by Massive Attack associate Marius DeVries] is as propulsive as her newly bolstered vocal chops are controlled. Despite Ray Of Light’s aural hipness, Madonna asserts sincerity to the point of occasional — and affecting — awkwardness. When she sings to baby Lourdes, You breathe new life into my broken heart, she turns shamelessly sentimental syllable into the spine-tingly stuff of which sweet pop dreams are made.
If it looks like I just got out of bed, Madonna announces as she arrives at her neighborhood coffee shop without a bodyguard, assistant, or publicist, I did. She’s dressed in a nondescript black knit shirt, black pants, and chipped black nail polish. Brown roots inches long lead to a tangled mess of brassy blond. At the end of the interview, Madonna politely refuses the reporter’s request for a snap-shot. Maybe next time when I don’t look like and old sea-hag, she suggests. Throughout the interview, she remains candid, but rarely does the club-queen who would be king lapse into her infamous dis-intensive talk-show persona. She even tried to be kind about Yanni. Sometimes, I miss the old Madonna.
Spin : Why make another album ?
Madonna : Why breathe ? Because I love it. Because I love making music. It’s what I do.
Spin : When I got this assignment, I wondered, “What can I possibly ask Madonna that hasn’t been askes ?” And then I thought, “Music ! I’ll ask her about music !” So, for starters, how was making Ray Of Light different than making your other records ?
Madonna : Well, my daughter came to visit me every day in the studio so there were lots of baby interruptions; that’s new. Mostly, though, I look at more musical chances. I let William play Mad professor. He comes from a very experimental, cutting-edge sort of place, he’s not a trained musician -and I’m used to working with classically trained musicians- but I knew that’s where I wanted to go,so I took a lot more risks Oftentimes the creative process was frustrating because I wasn’t used to it; it took a lot longer than usual to make this record. But I realize now that I need that time to get where I was going.