She gets knocked up, but she gets down again: Meet the latest brand-new Madonna, the Chemical Mother. Ray of Light is her maternity album as well as her avant-dance album, riding the electronica wave with her new collaborator, U.K. beat master William Orbit. She's not exactly subtle about it, either. In just the first song, "Drowned World/Substitute for Love," Madonna throws in trip-hop drum loops, jungle snares, string samples and pointless computer bleeps (lots of those). She shows off all these trinkets from her expensive collection of electronica gimmicks as if she's unpacking her shopping bags after a day at the outlet malls and she doesn't even care if they clash. "Drowned World" comes on loud, tacky and ridiculous, but it lets Madonna do what she does best: show off.
"Drowned World" makes a perfect introduction to Ray of Light in all its contradictions — Madonna sings about how motherhood rescued her from meaningless celebrity life, while the music garishly celebrates the vulgar excesses of fortune and fame. But more to the point, it's a great song — and Our Lady hasn't assembled this many songs worth her time since 1989's Like a Prayer. Thus far in the Nineties, Madonna has let her music grow long on concept, short on emotion. Her recent albums had their moments, but they were too abstract and chilly to sound much like the Madonna of "Angel" or "Cherish." And her Evita soundtrack — well, it recalled those late Laverne and Shirley episodes where they let Carmine Ragusa sing show tunes. It was sad to hear Madonna belt "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" on the radio she'd once ruled, coming back humbled as a shorter Celine Dion.
As an experimental dance album, Ray of Light is fairly useless. William Orbit doesn't know enough tricks to fill a whole CD, so he repeats himself something fierce; his most annoying tic is a spaceship-bleep button that he presses compulsively from song to song. But since this is a Madonna album, Orbit's rinky-dink sound effects have a definite charm; subtlety has never been her friend, and Orbit's overdressed sonics help Madonna wring gripping music out of her motherhood concept. Some fans feared that maternity would mellow her out, although those of us with Catholic moms weren't too worried. But she's positively ferocious in the first three tracks. "Drowned World," "Swim" and "Ray of Light" glide across the same sinuous midtempo groove, decorated with a surprising amount of Oasis-style rock guitar and way too many gaudy synth noises, while Madonna seethes with the disco passion she's been too cool to bother with lately. She hits similar peaks throughout the album, especially the arctic melancholy of "Frozen" and the spacey, utterly convincing lullaby for her daughter, "Little Star."
For all its erratic brilliance, Ray of Light has plenty of sluggish moments. Madonna still hasn't unlearned her Evita voice lessons, which means her diction can get painfully prissy; on "Drowned World," she enunciates the word lovers as if she's never met any. She keeps preaching about her new spiritual consciousness, and while I would gladly sit still for Madonna's investment advice, she'd rather drop true mathematics about karma and fate, where her expertise is a bit shakier. "Sky Fits Heaven" takes its text from a Gap ad, which is at least an interesting place to seek the secrets of the universe, but "Shanti/Ashtangi," where Madonna chants verse from the Yoga Taravali, sounds facile down here in the material world, especially since for all the faux Indian trappings it sounds like Devo's version of "Working in the Coal Mine." Madonna spends too much of the album slowing down the tempo in her quest for God, but God probably prefers "Into the Groove," just like the rest of us.
Ray of Light isn't quite the triumphant musical comeback her fans were praying novenas for. She hasn't regained her genius for the crass, linear pop hook, and the Eighties Madonna of high-energy beats and wise-ass bravado is gone forever — that show is over, say goodbye. Instead, Ray of Light sums up the best we can expect from Madonna at this late date: overly arty, occasionally catchy, confused, secondhand, infuriating and great fun in spite of herself. She doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what she wants to say about motherhood, other than that it's the sort of intense experience that happens to a special person like Madonna. But that's all it takes to get her emotions going, and passionate peaks like "Drowned World" and "Little Star" remind you that for all the years Madonna has spent chasing art, class and fashion, the reason we still care about her eccentricities is the emotion in her music; all her desperately chic decor can't hide her rock & roll heart. We've all already forgotten the Sex book, the nose ring, the gold tooth. But we'll always swoon for the lovesick Italian girl who sang "Crazy for You." You can hear that voice on Ray of Light.