Is “Care of the Soul” sharing space with baby-care manuals on Madonna’s bookshelf? “Ray of Light,” her first pop album in nearly four years, is rife with references to “the stars in the sky,” angels and heaven. If these nods to spirituality seem chic, you haven’t heard the other half of it. Working with British producer William Orbit, Madonna has dipped her new songs in a light batter of electronica. The hissy, staccato pulsations of ambient techno and drum-and-bass flit in and around her like celestial seasonings.
The blending of these philosophical and musical kernels would be unbearably trendy if it weren’t for a simple fact: “Ray of Light” is some of the most alluring and captivating music she’s ever created. Much as Paul Simon let South African pop revitalize his music on “Graceland,” so does Madonna find a middle ground between her old-school approach and the new club music.
Strictly speaking, “Ray of Light” isn’t pure techno. After all, it features songs, and the music reflects Orbit’s tendency toward ambient mood music. Instead, what Madonna and Orbit have done is to use electronica components as sonic window dressing. Hardstep beats make the romantic-physical yearnings of “Skin” and “Nothing Really Matters” even tauter; fuzzy beats and soundtrack- score strings lend “ ‘Drowned World” and “Frozen” a wuthering-beats melodrama. Throbbing yet meditative, “Ray of Light” is an adult’s version of dance music, with the dark timbres of Madonna’s nearing-40 voice its resolute center.
“Ray of Light” also affords us our closest peek yet into Madonna’s psyche, and it’s an oddly unhappy place. Despite her new baby and establishment respect courtesy of “Evita,” Madonna presents herself as shrouded in self-doubt and uncertainty, chastising herself for careerism and self-centeredness. The cinematic undertow of Orbit’s techno-lite tracks perfectly complements Madonna’s frame of mind. You’ve heard of postmodern pop? This is postpartum pop.
For all her grapplings with self-enlightenment, Madonna seems more relaxed and less contrived than she’s been in years. “Ray of Light” is truly like a prayer.