Madonna was by now a mother of a child fathered by her fitness trainer/lover Carlos Leon, practicing yoga regularly, studying both Eastern mysticism and Kabbalah, and a far more accomplished singer. All of these emotional, physical and spiritual changes shaped 1998′s Ray of Light. It’s where she discovers tender elements of both her voice and personality: Where she’d generously multi-track her voice while favoring wit and strength over vulnerability, here she contributes a careful and more caring delivery that’s matched by co-producer/co-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist William Orbit’s largely synthetic and finely tweaked studio backing. With songwriting and production help from her favored ballad co-creator Patrick Leonard, pop craftsman Rick Nowels, and keyboardist Marius DeVries, Orbit and Madonna craft an inward-searching singer-songwriter album disguised as an otherworldly electronica departure.
Synths abound, but there are plenty of strings and electric guitars as well: The steady-driving smash title track ranks as one of dance music’s smoothest rock appropriations. Madonna had repeatedly proved herself a consummate singles act, but here her ability as an album artist peaks. There’s not a whiff of filler: From the fame ruminations of album opener “Drowned World (Substitute For Love)” to her mourning failed relationships in “Frozen” and “The Power of Goodbye” to the closing mythological parable “Mer Girl,” every cut feels lyrically and musically committed and coherent within a diverse but sustained and well-sequenced whole. Before the year’s end, Madonna and Leon would separate, but Ray of Light would live on as her most accomplished and finessed album.