Is Care Of The Soul sharing space with baby-care manuals on Madonna’s bookshelf? Ray of Light (Warner Bros.), Ms. Ciccone’s first pop album in nearly four years, is rife with references to the earth and ”the stars in the sky,” angels and heaven, not to mention unexpectedly respectful references to God and ”the Gospel.” In one song, she’s ”waiting for the time when earth shall be as one”; in another, enunciating in a voice made firm and clear by those Evita lessons, she gamely attempts to make a pop hook out of a yoga chant.
If these nods to spiritual reawakening seem suspiciously chic, you haven’t heard the other half of it. Working with British producer William Orbit, Madonna has dipped her latest collection of songs in a light batter of electronica. Throughout Ray of Light, the hissy, staccato pulsations of ambient techno and drum-and-bass flit in and around her like celestial seasonings. Computers burp and bray in the background, or imitate streaking asteroids or submerging submarines.
The blending of these philosophical and musical kernels would be unbearably trend conscious (even by Madonna’s own standards) if it weren’t for a simple fact: Ray of Light is some of the most alluring and captivating music she’s ever crafted. Should comparisons be made, they’re neither to straight techno discs by the Chemical Brothers or Underworld, nor to stilted attempts at the music by U2 or David Bowie, but to Paul Simon’s Graceland. On that milestone, Simon let South African pop buoy and revitalize his music. In much the same way, Madonna looks for — and finds — a middle ground between her now-old-school approach and the new club music. She dresses her music up with her electronic love.
Strictly speaking, Ray of Light isn’t 100 percent pure techno. After all, it features traditionally structured pop melodies, and the music reflects Orbit’s less-than-edgy background in ambient-based mood music. Only once, on the sirenlike techno-glitter-ball of the title track, does the album kick into beats-per-minute frenzy. Instead, what Madonna and Orbit have done — and brilliantly at that — is to use electronica components as sonic window dressing. Hard-step beats and synth washes make the romantic-physical yearnings (and hooks) of ”Skin” and ”Nothing Really Matters” even tauter; the juxtaposition of fuzzy beats and soundtrack-score strings lends ”’Drowned World’ aka ‘My Substitute for Love”’ and ”Frozen” a wuthering-beats melodrama that’s often breathtaking. 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.