Yet it can't be true that there's no room in the musical universe for a serious Madonna. That argument's always been hooey; I take "Like a Prayer" as serious FM preaching and it moves me unfailingly. Hoodwinking the Andrae Crouch Choir into recording what a holy fuck ought to sound like may be over the top--but where else do you go when your idea is not that "2 become 1" but that two become all? A Madonna record that thinks the thoughtfulness lives in the lyric sheet is born into a semi-doomed life; and William Orbit's elegantly under-the-top sonics miss the point. Someone needs to remind her that she's a gospel singer.

She's never had the pipes of the great crossover gospelists, of Aretha, or Chaka Khan, or Dolly Parton. But Tramaine Hawkins also sings circles around Ms. Ciccone; I'll take the latter's platters. Gospel shouting in and of itself isn't very interesting. It's all about the tension in playing churchy abandon against the secular grain. Madonna's dancefloor gospel, bridging sexual and religious shamelessness, derives most directly from Chaka's, by way of Donna Summer: orgasm as a joyful noise unto the Lord. It's the jubilation that sold "Lucky Star" but is now too trashy for "Little Star"; the ecstasy that oughta be selling "Skin."

"I close my eyes, I need to make a connection," she says in that song. It's boilerplate and she knows it: "Why do all the things I say sound like the stupid things I said before?" Gosh, Madonna, maybe because they are: "I hear your voice, feels like flying," she sang once. "I close my eyes." But "Like a Prayer" was mysterious and sweaty and ecstatic, all about union. "Skin" just hangs around sounding shiny and pretty, and polite to the depths--a soundtrack nearly dissociated from the twice-told tale it's meant to accompany. Despite a vocal hook or two (for which we're grateful), the same dissonance renders "Frozen" a non sequitur: no matter how much she swears "You're frozen when your heart's not open," the music never wavers from absolute zero at the bone.


Ray of Light
Maverick/Warner Bros.

Such a chasm between sound and vision mirrors exactly the no-woman's-land the world provides for 39-year-old pop singers--lost to the hormonal urgency of youth, still a way from the mortal keening that lands you gigs at the Vatican. And it would be pleasing to end in suggesting that she's found something new in that wasteland, or conveyed its wastedness. But finally, she's at her best when she sneaks back into the old house for a few minutes in the title cut. She sells herself utterly to the big beat, like for now she's forgotten about introspection, the problem of the self, credibility, motherhood, Pre-Raphaelite coiffures--everything not currently rocking the disco cathedral. This one's between her and heaven: "Got herself a universe," she says, or maybe "goddess of a universe"--we'll believe either way. For the moment we'll believe anything, and we can hear the sound of her belief; for the only time on the record, she breaks into wails, loses language altogether. Then it comes back to her: "And I feel," she hollers, "and I feeeeel like I just got home."

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