"We're gonna carry those sins on our back," sings Madonna. "Don't want to carry [them] any more."
The song is "Swim," an extraordinary five-minute piece of electronic pop that will appear on the mega-star's upcoming album, Ray of Light, due out March 3. Beginning with a rock 'n' roll guitar intro that brings to mind The Verve, "Swim," like many of the songs on the album, rides on a funky techno rhythm and features dub-style production courtesy of the album's producer, William Orbit.
Approximately 70 minutes in length, Ray of Light features 13 songs, most of which find Madonna combining classic pop vocals and melodies with state-of-the-moment techno soundscapes. Like much of the musical work Madonna has done in the past, Ray of Light is about freedom, love and following one's heart.
It appears that Madonna has found in producer William Orbit a late '90s Phil Spector. Orbit has crafted breathtaking tracks. Weird, alien sound-effects float through many of the mixes. During the ballad "Power of Good-bye," strings well up, then are abruptly dropped out, leaving only the sound of an acoustic guitar. In that song, which is set to a slow, reggae rhythm, Madonna sings to a lover she is leaving: "Your heart is not open/ So I must go/ The spell has been broken/ I love you so/ Freedom comes when you learn to let go." The song is built around the line "There's no greater power/ Than the power of good-bye."
Orbit is an acclaimed ambient/dance producer and remixer who, in addition to previously working on such Madonna tracks as "Erotica" and "Justify My Love," has remixed the work of Peter Gabriel, Olive, Prince, Depeche Mode, Blur, Kraftwerk and Human League. Reinventing Madonna seems to fit right in with something Orbit said in a New Musical Express interview at the dawn of the '90s: "Actually the more plastic and manufactured a pop star is the greater the temptation is to work with them and do something really out of order."
What Orbit has done at Madonna's behest is create a fresh, of-the-moment sound that will fit on modern-rock and pop radio, in the dance clubs and raves and on MTV.
In addition to the heavy electronic emphasis, the album incorporates striking rock-guitar. "Power of Good-bye" includes a jaw-dropping weird, trebly guitar bit, while "Swim," "Candy Perfume Girl" and the first single, "Frozen" (due for release to U.S. radio next month), all include cool rock-guitar at various points.
The title track, "Ray of Light," is a late '90s up-tempo disco affair that kicks in with a hard, techno intro. But make no mistake, this is dance music informed by all that has happened between the demise of Studio 54 and the triumph of Prodigy who, by the way, record for Madonna's Maverick label. As previously reported, Madonna asked Prodigy mastermind Liam Howlett to produce this album, but he said no. "Yeah, Madonna asked me to produce her album," Howlett told
Addicted To Noise last summer. "There's no way I would even think about that. There's no way that I'd commercialize our sound. I wouldn't give our sound away. To give that to Madonna is like selling my soul to the devil. It's absolutely no good."
But with Ray of Light, Madonna has pulled off the truly difficult feat of creating modern, relevant and edgy music with tremendous commercial appeal. Ray of Light could very well become the most successful of her career -- critically and commercially.
One of the album's many highlights is "Candy Perfume Girl," a playful, seductive trip-hop number that finds Madonna teasing, "I'm your candy perfume girl ... You're a candy perfect boy." Orbit's dub-style approach to the mix is particularly evident here, where a heavy rhythm track completely drops out at one point, replaced by an almost psychedelic Beatles feel, before the hard rhythm comes crashing back in. And, naturally, Orbit has placed groovy electronic sounds everywhere.
Then there is the over-the-top sexy "Skin," which begins with a spoken intro over symphonic soul: "Kiss me I'm dying," intones Madonna. "Put your hand on my skin ... " The song then breaks wide open; it's a ballad delivered over hard and fast techo that brings to mind late '80s Depeche Mode. Midway through, there's a breakdown where Madonna's voice simply becomes part of the sonic texture as she repeats, "Put your hand on my skin ... "
"Nothing Really Matters" is an upbeat dance number that, like "Ray of Light," has a disco feel. It offers one of Madonna's more straight-forward and traditional vocal tracks, yet still has a slightly weird twist. "Sky Fits Heaven," which begins with a spoken intro that includes the line, "Child fits mother/ So hold your baby tight," weds modern techno to a lovely melody.
The first single, "Frozen," has already caused a stir. Released to radio in Singapore, it was placed on a Singapore website (see Music News for Jan. 26, 1998) and soon accessed by Madonna fans the world over. A Warner Bros. Records spokesperson said the company has taken steps to have the song removed from the Web.
There's good reason for the excitement over "Frozen." It features simply gorgeous, ethereal vocals from Madonna over a science experiment of an electronica track and the key line "You're frozen when your heart's not open." [Tues., Jan. 27, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]