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[whitespace] Madonna Apple Pie and Motherhood: Maternity leave has turned Madonna into a sentimentalist.

Mario Testino



After wallowing in Peronism, Madonna returns with an electronica-tinged 'Ray of Light'

By Gina Arnold

I've always been a big admirer of Madonna, from "Borderline" and "You Can Dance" to her hilarious Blonde Ambition tour to, yes, even some images in Sex. Nineteen ninety-five's Bedtime Stories was undoubtedly brilliant, but after that album, Madonna began to lose me. Either she didn't know that Eva and Juan Peron were Nazi sympathizers--or she did know and didn't care.

Either way, when Madonna began prattling on at length in interviews about her great admiration for and identification with Eva Peron, I started to feel a little queasy about her intellectual integrity. So I really needed the new Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.), her eighth album, to be a return to form, because unfortunately, once the chink of doubt creeps into one's allegiance, it stays there--an entirely unwelcome guest.

People sometimes question Madonna's input on her albums, citing the numerous musical collaborators cited on the liner notes as proof that she is some kind of superior, manipulative conductor. But Madonna must contribute something beyond mere vocals, because her body of work over the years is emotionally and artistically cohesive. It sounds like the work of one artist.

Ray of Light is also a cohesive record, melding conventional balladry with a more sophisticated, ambient-electronic background. Madonna seeks to push the bounds of electronica a bit and does a much better, and more informed, job of it than U2, Bowie and the Rolling Stones. Their idea of "going electronica" is to hire the Dust Brothers and be done with.

Instead of that obvious ploy, Ray of Light is produced by ambient musician and producer William Orbit (he remixed "Justify My Love" and Erotica, as well as working with Peter Gabriel and Depeche Mode). The album takes its main inspiration from the cold, tweaky sound of Aphex Twin and Portishead, which it then allies with more familiar styles.

Granted, the idea is a good one, but the results aren't quite what I had hoped for. The first single, "Frozen," is one of the album's best efforts (one has to appreciate her superliteral interpretation of trip-hop's innate emotional reserve), but elsewhere, the concept falters.

"Skin" and "Candy Perfume Girl" have disco backgrounds that are not quite enough alleviated by dubby samples, drop-outs and sudden bursts of acoustic guitar or strings. The production's trickiness is so in-your-face it almost stands you in the corner and forces you to acknowledge it.

Moreover, the sentimental lyrics just miss being sophisticated enough for real trip-hop fans. "Kiss me, I'm dying" sounds like an outtake from a Garbage song. "If I could melt your heart / we'd never be apart" is not exactly "Sour Times." "Give yourself to me" and "freedom comes when you learn to let go" are equally banal thoughts to inject into such eerie music.

Ray of Light is not really very youth-oriented, since it's not particularly fast or upbeat. Instead, it takes a tack from the 1995 song "Bedtime Stories" (which was written by Björk) and is extremely introspective and psychological in tone. Songs like "Swim," "Frozen" and "Mer Girl" are full of references to the subconscious (drowning, melting, finding oneself, etc.). The lyrics--"Freedom comes when you learn to let go"--reek of Psych. 101 lite.

My favorite song is the title cut, on which Madonna sings in a higher range and manages to avoid sounding so damned portentous. I also like "Shanti/Ashtangi," which uses Indian raga beats and seems inspired by Madonna's newfound love of yoga--or perhaps a familiarity with the trendy Anglo-Indian band Cornershop. Either way, "Shanti/Ashtangi" is the most lighthearted song on the album--and the one with the most compelling groove.

Where Madonna shows the most growth has been as a singer. On a purely technical level, her singing on Evita was wonderful, and on Ray of Light, she's even better. She falls significantly short, however, on her lyrics.

A few years ago, we were all made aware of Madonna's great desire to have a child--and of her concomitant (and equally common) belief that this event would give her life meaning. Ray of Light reflects this urge; all mention of sexual lust has been replaced with more spiritual reflections about the "power of love."

On "Little Star," which is clearly a song about her daughter, she even sings, "God gave a present to me / made of flesh and bone." It may be sincere, but it is as sappy a sentiment as Madonna has ever delivered.

Elsewhere, there's a saintly air to some of the lyrics. Indeed, the only thing that distinguishes Ray of Light from the latest Celine Dion record is its impeccable musical chops. Otherwise, Madonna's entire take on motherhood has all been the rather conventional view that having a kid immediately turns a person into a saint.

MADONNA HAS ALWAYS been somewhat conventional. Indeed, her success has derived partly from the fact that she's never underestimated how easy it is to shock America. If she hadn't combined her slight subversions with deeply familiar imagery borrowed from Catholicism and the iconography of platinum blonde hair, she'd never have gone anywhere at all.

Madonna's subversiveness has never been particularly musical, either--though she does make brave attempts to stretch the bounds of avant-garde pop by folding producers like William Orbit into her own ultramainstream recordings. Her true innovations have come in the more easy-to-manipulate arena of human sexuality.

She's contributed greatly to the broadening of sexual mores in America over the past decade. An enlightened individual can see the connection between a willingness to be open about sexuality and having a more educated, less fearful population that can better confront AIDS, teen pregnancy and abortion without flinching--and for that, Madonna can be proud.

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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