Fifteen Years of Light

No famous faces, far-off places, trinkets I can buy
No handsome stranger, heady danger, drug that I can try
No ferris wheel, no heart to steal, no laughter in the dark
No one-night-stand, no far-off land, no fire that I can spark…

The incantation came three-quarters of the way into the opening track of Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ album, celebrating its 15th anniversary today. As I listen to the song now, it resonates differently than it did then, in ways both wonderful and wistful. On this day, Spring seems light years away, as snow falls down coating the outside world in white. Back in 1998, the season of rebirth was in the air at the midnight hour of ‘Ray of Light’s release.

That enchanting evening, rife with mystical magic and musical majesty, has been well-documented in this space numerous times before ~ in the timelines for ‘Drowned World: Substitute for Love‘, ‘Frozen‘, ‘To Have And Not To Hold‘, ‘Sky Fits Heaven‘, ‘Shanti/Ashtangi‘, ‘Nothing Really Matters‘, ‘The Power of Good-bye‘, ‘Little Star‘ and ‘Ray of Light‘. Today, I listen to the album from start to finish as Andy sleeps and snow falls. It is, literally and figuratively, the morning to 1998’s night. The wondrous thing about the album is that it works so brilliantly in both.

It seems that everyone – even non-hard-core-Madonna fans – has a ‘Ray of Light’ memory. It is, far more than any other period in her career, the one moment when the world collectively came together in love and support of the Queen. Critical notices were glowing, sales were stellar (in spite of the fact that the album failed to reach #1, held down to the #2 spot not by that “damn Bodyguard soundtrack”, but by another cultural phenomenon, ‘Titanic’), and Madonna was back in vogue, ending the tumultuous 90’s as she began it: on top.

This was, even more-so than the glorious ‘Like A Prayer’, the album that solidified Madonna’s musical legacy, defining her once and for all as a serious artist, with a lasting body of work. Listening to the album now, it sounds as classic and pure as it did fifteen years ago, with nary a notion of nostalgia or dated-ness. In fact, ‘Ray of Light’ may be the most timeless of Madonna’s albums, thanks in no small part to its marriage of guitars and electronica, the latter of which might have worked against it, had electronica not been around since the 70’s.

The album also found Madonna at her most melancholy and contemplative, which is where I’ve always felt most connected to her. Sure, there were racing highlights like the title track, and the classic-Madonna-backed-by-Niki-and-Donna dance of ‘Nothing Really Matters’, but at its heart, this was a dark, moody, moving album – less concerned with getting people on their feet, and more intent on getting into their hearts.

It was a spiritual journey, which sounds a lot more lugubrious than the melodies would have you believe, and it’s a testament to the alchemy between Madonna and William Orbit that it worked so well. With its extreme themes of love, death, fame, desire, heartbreak, childhood, and even sanskrit, it’s amazing how cohesive the roller-coaster of emotions ends up being, but Madonna’s voice encapsulates it all, backed by the guitar-based delicacies of Orbit’s music.

For me, the lightning and thunder will always be found in the first track, ‘Drowned World: Substitute for Love.’ Nowhere else has Madonna sounded more genuine, more heartfelt, more emotionally open than on this song. For anyone who has ever searched for purpose in love, or who has been left unloved or unwanted and tried to fill that emptiness with something else, this is the song that should matter most.

The entire album is a movement of meditation. It can be as light and airy as an ambient breeze, or as heavy and rich as a centuries-old tapestry of woven filaments of valuable metals. It opens up to you when you are ready to receive it, changing and evolving with the years, minding your shifting consciousness, touching you in new ways upon every listen. Many of us have that one artist we love more than all others – the one who speaks to you in ways that no one else ever could – whether it’s Bach or Beethoven, the Beatles or Bon Jovi, Billie Holiday or Britney Spears – for me, that artist has always been Madonna, and ‘Ray of Light’ was the record that confirmed it.

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