When Madonna arrived at a Los Angeles studio in summer 1997, ready to record what would become Ray Of Light, her seventh album of original material, she’d already spent months writing demos with her longtime collaborator Patrick “Live To Tell” Leonard and songwriter Rick Nowels. Fueled by a love of then-current electronic music coming out of the UK and Europe — think Daft Punk and DJ Dimitri — she chose Brit whiz William Orbit as her collaborator for what she termed his “certain brand of madman-type genius.”
Orbit had previously remixed a few of M’s singles. In 1997, he encountered a freshly energized (and spiritualized) Madonna. Now a student of Kabbalah and a new parent, she told MTV’s Kurt Loder at the time, “I have much more of a joy of living than I can ever remember having before… I realized how blessed I was. I started to focus on living in the moment and enjoying each moment.” The mood was reflected in her appearance too, with long strawberry blond hair and an earth mother vibe.
Madonna had a history of launching albums with killer singles. Ray Of Light arrived on March 3, 1998, and, prior to that, most hardcore fans of the singer can remember where they were when they first heard the oceanic strings and burping synths that lead “Frozen.”
“You only see what your eyes want to see,” Madonna sings in a vulnerable, almost whispering voice before the song’s Eastern influences come in. Not since “Live To Tell” had a Madonna ballad carried such emotional weight — and this time it was done with a new level of sonic grandeur.
“Drowned World /Substitute For Love,” the album’s first track, started as a simple demo about her search for something deeper than material wealth and fame. In the studio with Orbit, he and M layered the record with blips, stardust effects and a sample from the obscure “Why I Follow the Tigers” by The San Sebastian Strings. The first voice you hear on the album is male, saying “You see,” before Madonna’s own vocals appear, sounding deeper and wiser.
Like the first chapter of a great novel, “Drowned World” sets the tone for an album light years ahead of its predecessors in scope and musicality.
Madonna’s vocals throughout Ray Of Light were a game-changer. In the 15 years since her debut, no one had heard this voice before. On the astonishing title track, she shatters her previous range as she scales up and down the peaks of the exhilarating chorus. Working on Evita a few years before “really strengthened my voice,” she said at the time. “I learned how to sing in a way that I never did before.”
Indeed, no choir is needed to lift “Ray Of Light” into disco heaven. Madonna supplies the highs herself in some perfect moments: the extended, spiraling way she wails “yea-ea-ears” at 3:27 or how her vocal spins out of control at 4:14, matched by Orbit’s frenzied guitar work.
Much of Ray Of Light’s energy comes from the pulsating dance music she paired with lyrics that reflected her new outlook. Nicknaming the album Veronica Electronica as she recorded it, Madonna told MTV she was making “drug music without drugs… it’s possible [to create] if you have really free people.”
In particular, “Sky Fits Heaven” and “Skin” sound earth-shaking on a large sound system. Enlightened by the influence of both Kabbalah and world music, Madonna even included the beat heavy “Shanti/Ashtangi,” sung entirely in Sanskrit.
Lourdes, Madonna’s baby, also heavily influenced Ray Of Light’s softer spirit. “Having her has set me on a new way of thinking,” she told MTV. The gossamer “Little Star” is literally a sweet lullaby, made contemporary by Orbit’s’ shimmering production. “A lot of bubbly bits” is how Madonna described his contribution. The track is in stark contrast to the darker, “Mer Girl,” an eerie, almost free-form mediation on the death of her own mother.
By the time the album’s fifth single, “Nothing Really Matters,” was released in 1999, Madonna had shaken off the earthy styling for a more severe, Asian-influenced look, with blunt-cut, jet black hair and pale makeup. For the Johan Renck-directed video, Madonna set what was perhaps Ray Of Light‘s most classically Madonna-esque pop song against ultra-modern geisha visuals. Check her wicked “finger dancing” and jerking dance moves while creepy extras bob up and down in the background like they’d floated in from a Japanese horror flick.
“The Power Of Good-Bye” acts as a sort of sonic sister to “Frozen,” both in the theme of a heart closed to love and Scottish film scorer Craig Armstrong’s distinctive string arrangements (listen for his sweeping orchestral bridge at 2:49).
The song’s co-writer, Rick Nowels, spoke to Idolator last week, recalling, “Madonna and I wrote nine songs together over a two week period in late April 1997. Madonna would show up at 3 p.m. and we would start from scratch. She would leave at 7:00 and we would have a finished song and demo with all her lead and background vocals recorded.
“She is a brilliant pop melodist and lyricist,” Nowels continued. “I was knocked out by the quality of the writing. The lyrics to ‘The Power Of Good-Bye’ are stunning. I love Madonna as an artist and a songwriter… I know she grew up on Joni Mitchell and Motown, and to my ears she embodies the best of both worlds. She is a wonderful confessional songwriter, as well as being a superb hit chorus pop writer… She doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a writer.”
Though Ray Of Light peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 chart — it was blocked from #1 by the unstoppable Titanic soundtrack — the LP won four Grammys, including Best Pop Vocal Album. The album remains an artistic watershed for Madonna; not only was it well-received by critics, its sales exceeded those of her previous two studio albums.
In 1998, 15 years into her career, “Veronica Electronica” was more plugged in to her art than ever before. As Madonna said in the studio that prior summer, “It’s about wonderment.”