Madonna's improbable career has been fascinating to witness: One of the most famous (and infamous) stars in the world, she put out a 50-dollar book of glossy sex photos, and became a loving single mom; she starred in the blowzy musical Evita, as well as a terrible B-grade erotic thriller; and she has released glossy pop singles, dance-floor sensations, breathy come-ons, and at least one high-profile ode to spanking. She is one of the most enigmatic and unpredictable celebrities in the world, and her 13th album Ray Of Light—her first collection of new studio songs since 1994's tepidly received Bedtime Stories—mostly lives up to that remarkable legacy. It does take a while to get going, opening with a couple of dreary ballads; "Swim" even laments the horrors of "children killing children / while students rape their teachers." But once those clumsy declarations of maturity are out of the way, Madonna packs most of Ray Of Light's remainder with remarkable songs. The dense, doomy ballad "Skin" is effectively dramatic, and the pumped-up title track is bound to be a deserving smash. The chugging "Nothing Really Matters" has a chorus ("Nothing really matters / Love is all we need") that should ring across dance floors for years to come, while the atmospheric "Frozen" is a great first single despite lyrics like, "Love is a bird / She needs to fly." Much is made of the record's electronica influences—as well as Madonna's collaboration with producer/remixer William Orbit—but it's never distracting, in part because she wasn't exactly grunge before making the switch. Besides, Ray Of Light sounds great from start to finish. At 67 minutes, it could have used some judicious editing—for example, it wouldn't have been a tragedy had those first two tracks been lopped off, and "Little Star" is right down there with Lenny Kravitz's "Flowers For Zoe" as far as insufferable odes to pop stars' daughters go—but it's a marvelous record that's mature, yet almost never boring.
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