Imagine The Wizard of Oz but with Madonna in each of the climactic roles: she is the infinitely mighty Wizard, oohing and awing her subjects; she is the flawed, human-sized figure revealed behind both the curtain and the vast machinery of her own projection; and finally she is the girl redelivered from the profound Technicolor fantasy into her real life--now with a woman's wisdom.

This is, more or less, the narrative leading up to and incorporating Ray of Light, all of it meant to establish the new Madonna as older and wiser, human sized and recovered from grandiose mania. She's dishing up Sanskrit coffeetalk on her new album, and speaks these days of capital-K Karma and her Zen yoga practice. It makes sense, sort of. Buddhism's about effacing the self, and she's been chipping away at her primal self--Madonna the Pop Singer--all decade.

Her five '90s records have been left-handed projects: the pointedly indifferent Bedtime Stories; a ballad compilation; and the troika of Erotica, I'm Breathless, and Evita, each the soundtrack to an outside text. Okay, it's not exactly achieving No Mind, but at least she's not erecting colossal Madonna statues in the Third World. Nor merely marking time, plutonium clock--style, by the decay rate of her own fame. So instead she's an author, she's a mogul, she's an actress, she's a mom.


Ray of Light
Maverick/Warner Bros.

But if the fictional public, of which we're all a part, might have yearned to buy the allegory of Dorothy and the Wiz back in the day, in '98--with big radio and bigger video, with pure fame beamed real time into every home on the range--it's the sort of okeydoke no one goes for. There is no return of the real, really.

Still, you can't blame a girl for trying. There is no way to compete against the Eighties Pop Singer. Madonna's carefully post-shameless these days: the glossies capture her as "immaculately understated" with a haircut that says "don't notice me." She swears she'll never ever perform "Like a Virgin" again. On the new record, she just wants "to deal with my truth right now."

The problem is, she still has to compete in the marketplace--she can run from True Blue, but she can't hide from Celine Dion, whose cyborg bombast will crush Ray of Light like a bug. We know this; for the first time, we expect it. Madonna returns as the most successful underdog imaginable. Hey look, it's Single Working Mom vs. the Celinator!

In the dream of rehumanizing, boredom also is on her side. She took self-referential stardom to realms that would turn Andy Warhol's hair white, but by now she's pretty much played: Madonna, sexual politics, discourse of fame, yawn. Never mind that Lourdes kid--the Spice Girls are her true daughters, laughing at themselves all the way to the bank: feminism, girl power, blah blah blah.

Madonna once wore the audience's fanaticism and the crit/cult hysteria like a wedding dress and veil; now she's naked on the radio. Well, not really--she's never gonna get to the magic zero of context-neutral, of a bunch of sounds we can freely love or hate or ignore. But we can at least try to hear it, sitting in the listening room she's cleared out against the vast architectural ruins of her own phenomenon.

And the first thing we hear--almost inevitably, given her self-effacing vibe--is the stunning but ultimately misguided production of William Orbit. An early player in the ambient techno game, Orbit's served as Madonna's 12-inch mechanic on and off since "Justify My Love." Here he gets the keys to the jeep--there are almost no other musician credits--and proves that size counts, at least in budgets. Ray of Light sounds fathoms deeper than his own albums (recorded under 43 different noms d'electronica). It's musical mercury: inhumanly reflective surface over restless pools of swoon and swoop, shimmery and temperatureless. For the objectivist soundhead, the processed acoustic guitar at the beginning of "Swim" is worth the ticket alone; one of the three great guitar tones in memory (along with Mudhoney, "Touch Me I'm Sick," and the sampled riff in N2Deep's "Back to the Hotel"). Similarly thrilling touches pop up all over the disc: the Dopplered tom'n'snare in the lead single "Frozen"; the building and beguiling charts for "Drowned World (Substitute for Love)." That song is a production wonderland: drum'n'bass drowning in a river of Valium, while a different ultrasheen six-string sweetens the mix with digitized arpeggio. And hey, you get a vocal track too!

Ay, there's the rub. While it's true that Madonna's voice carries more depth and a richer timbre than in the past, the new sincerity is sort of a disaster. Back when she made fake so big there was no beyond, she could survive dopey lyrics. They were part and parcel of the moneymakin' pop/art joke, balanced over the lowest common denominator of the dancefloor. That was then. Nineteen ninety-eight's politics of meaning, her "truth right now," weighs heavier on the ear, wavering between therapy chitchat and Kahlil Gibranisms: "Never forget who you are, little star. Never forget how to dream, butterfly." Stop, you're hurting me. I suppose now's a good time to mention that Rod McKuen has a writing credit in here somewhere.

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