During her material-girl heyday in the mid-'80s, few could have guessed that Madonna would age gracefully. Her music and image back then personified the impulsive energy and vibrant yearning of youth, encouraging us to get into the groove and live life for the moment.
At 39, though, the pop icon is clearly thinking ahead, both artistically and spiritually. Her ambitious new album is all about the future. From the sparkling, electronically based arrangements to the lyrics, it's Madonna's most thoughtful and personal work since 1989's "Like a Prayer."
Reflecting on how fame and life experience have changed, challenged and enriched her, she looks forward with a new sense of maturity and elegant self-possession.
That's not to say that Madonna has lost touch with her roots. Her voice, though ripened somewhat by age and training, remains a sweet triumph of style over substantial technique. It's a limited but wonderfully emotive instrument that can flirt unabashedly on the spare, sexy "Candy Perfume Girl," then turn tender and nurturing on the gentle, shimmering "Little Star," one of several songs clearly influenced by the singer's new role as mother of a baby daughter.
Madonna's enduring knack for incorporating hip and exotic textures into accessible pop tunes is evident on avant-leaning dance tracks such as "Nothing Really Matters" and "The Power of Good-bye" and such atmospheric, world-music-kissed numbers as "Shanti/Ashtangi" and the plaintive single "Frozen."
Granted, none of these songs are as instantly, masterfully infectious as Madonna's best early singles. But by the time the album closes with the spare, haunted "Mer Girl," in which she runs through a metaphorical landscape in search of herself, we are left feeling intrigued by what Madonna has revealed, yet titillated by all we still don't know or haven't resolved about her--feeling, in other words, the mark of a true and timeless star.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).
* Excerpts from "Ray of Light" and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips