Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield nails this album. The most pertinent parts of his review as follows:
~“As an experimental dance album, Ray of Light is fairly useless.” (As in, this is probably the least danceable album under Madonna’s name.)
~”William Orbit doesn’t know enough tricks to fill a whole CD, so he repeats himself something fierce.”
~”Madonna spends too much of the album slowing down the tempo in her quest for God, but God probably prefers “Into the Groove,” just like the rest of us.”
~”She hasn’t regained her genius for the crass, linear pop hook, and the Eighties Madonna of high-energy beats and wise-ass bravado is gone forever — that show is over, say goodbye.
But he ultimately concludes, “Ray of Light sums up the best we can expect from Madonna at this late date: overly arty, occasionally catchy, confused, secondhand, infuriating and great fun in spite of herself.” And that’s just it: as far as post-80s Madonna goes, a remarkably flawed album that’s sometimes remarkable is as good as it’s going to get.
As everyone knows, the title track is the best thing here. Hearing Madonna belt out “AND I FEEL…” in the choruses is the album at its most exhilarating, while the electric guitar slashes about in the left channel in the first instance or the joyous synth bounces about in the instances after; a blur of techno technicolor that essentially invalidates Lady Gaga’s entire career. And the bridge is well-executed, where she repeats “Quicker than a neon light,” before holding the last note, arpeggiating it before a synth comes in to approximate that neon light. “Drowned World / Substitute for Love” is the next best draw; an indelible slice of ambient pop, with the album’s second best hook, while the song slowly unravels and shifts, with Orbit adding drum rolls to help nudge it in the right direction and as Madonna becomes more passionate in her singing.
The rest of the album doesn’t come close to those two songs. Madonna being someone who made music in the 80s, the average song length is a lot longer than they often need to be, and Ray of Light being a 90s album, the album length is a lot longer than it needs to be. Actually, the worst part about this album might be Madonna herself, whose voice is often paper thin (except the title track and main attraction), and whose lyrics are all kind of worthless, more so when she tries to elevate them past typical fortune-cookie/horoscope stuff (ie. “Swim” and “Mer Girl”). And like a lot of other downtempo albums, Ray of Light limps by based on the aesthetic; after the first three songs, you’ve basically heard all this album has to offer.
The album’s few other highlights are when they add they add in an extra detail to the light techno beats, electric guitar and computerized blips and bloops: the acoustic guitar of “The Power of Goodbye” (which also employs some strings, making the preceding melodyless and long “Frozen” kind of useless), the digitized wordless vocal yawn in the hook of “Shanti / Ashtangi,” the piano in “Nothing Really Matters,” the scatted hook on “To Have and Not to Hold,” the vague harmonies in “Candy Perfume Girl.” That’s it, maybe the “Kiss me, I’m dying” bit from “Skin.” But that’s not nearly enough to warrant a 66 minute album. Gorgeous cover, but that’s not nearly enough to recommend this over a compilation that’ll have the title track.