1998 was a difficult year for me. But not without redemption and solace.
My parents got divorced. It wasn’t pretty.
I lost my job working at the movie theater for 4 years. Spent the summer working odd jobs until I found stable employment.
I got arrested for being an idiot. Wrong place at the wrong time.
My grandfather died the day we helped move my sister into her college dorm. I read the eulogy at his funeral.
But through it all, I listened to the album “Ray of Light” by Madonna. Without her voice and music, that year could have been much worse possibly. In and of itself, this is a wonderful album. This was a comeback record for her. She took things into a newer and more spiritual direction. Madonna, herself, was maturing and growing. I found much healing power listening to this album. She reassures the comfort of saying goodbye.
I had to say goodbye to my Grandpa who held the extended family together. With the divorce, I also had to wave goodbye to the structure of our immediate household family. This year was a challenging one.
Opening and closing the heart.
Madonna deeply connects with family matters. After all, 1989’s “Like a Prayer,” dealt with the breakup of her marriage, her mom’s death, and the estranged relationship with her father All of these things shattered the belief that Madonna was an artist that relied on hit singles. The deep and expressive set of music on “Like a Prayer,” made for a mature album that could be enjoyed from start to finish.
Unfortunately, subsequent recordings weren’t as sharp: “Erotica” and “Bedtime Stories” definitely had their moments but also had their share of filler. Then along came 1998’s “Ray of Light.” This picks up on the flip side of “Like a Prayer”: this time around, Madonna’s the parent, and the topic of family provides a springboard for reflections on love versus fame and what a grown adult considers truly important.
Adding to the mix is her collaboration with electronica producer William Orbit, making “Ray of Light” one of the most mature and satisfying albums of dance music that I have personally heard.
And while the opening track gets things off to an unexpected start with a hypnotic slice of slow rock, the lyrics of “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” set the pace of the record. Halfway through the song the music takes a break and Madonna distances herself from side-effects of fame. As the song continues the decibel level grows until both Madonna and her music are at an in-your-face level, clearly declaring that fame may be nice but enough is enough.
The dance-club friendly track, “Nothing Really Matters” is another summation of her new point of view; singing to her newborn daughter, the onetime Material Girl admits that she once “lived so selfishly,” but now “everything’s changed.” The concept is simple but nonetheless a touching one.
Not all the lyrical content is parental, however. And then the midtempo “Power of Goodbye” and the near-Bossa Nova “To Have and Not to Hold” are flat-out love songs, albeit doomed ones. This is where I found most of my connections, during this portion of the album.
All in all, “Ray of Light” marks her most successful connection with dance music and her most compelling efforts as a lyricist. It’s a relief to know that, years after enjoyable ear candy like “Holiday” and “Like a Virgin,” Madonna grew up and matured over the years just like the rest of us. As she observes on “Sky Fits Heaven”: “isn’t everyone just travelling down their own road/watching the signs as they go/I think I’ll follow my heart/it’s a very good place to start.”
Very good? Some would say brilliant.