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Fame is bad. That’s a big part of the message of Madonna’s Ray of Light, her first album of new material since 1994. If it seems a little simple for the masterwork proclaimed in many corners prior to release—and if all her disdain for celebrity hasn’t led her to package the disc in a plain brown wrapper—well, who wasn’t expecting a bundle of contradictions?

Madonna debuted several of its songs in a live performance at a New York dance club and made tongue-in-cheek remarks about becoming “Veronica Electronica.” Ray of Light, however, is less a booty-shaking enterprise than a frequently solemn superstar meditation on the price of fame, the wonder of babies, and other clichés, set to music that relies more on triphop fripperies than techno dazzlement.

Even with beats passing at a midtempo grind, the grooves are rarely as deep-dish as the one Lenny Kravitz supplied for “Justify My Love”; when Madonna revisits her old-school house style on “Nothing Really Matters,” the effort feels pro forma.

Musically, Ray of Light is overall much more impressive. While Madonna’s major collaborator here, William Orbit, is hardly one of the heaviest names in the genre she’s currently plundering, the two manage a formidable, soulful sound, linking a warm version of the beats the kids like with some of the artist’s strongest, most forthright vocals. Forthcoming remixes of several tracks may reveal the depth of her commitment to the style, but unlike U2 on the similarly trendy Pop, she appears interested in it for more than just its attention-grabbing qualities.

In fact, the umpteenth new Madonna more closely resembles the old, sincere-plus Bono than the late-’90s ironic (or is it just wise-ass?) Bono resembles the early mistress of image manipulation. Or something. To be sure, if Bono had opened Pop with a Rod McKuen sample—as Madonna does Ray of Light on “Drowned World/Substitute for Love”—he’d have expected knowingly raised eyebrows, if not outright rolling in the aisles. Ill-advised it may be on Madonna’s part, but the moment passes quickly, and anyway, she really does mean it, man.

Of course, Madonna spent years concocting her own level of depth, whether offhandedly making life-enhancing anthems out of trifles like “Into the Groove” or devising one of the darkest music-video statements ever for “Oh Father.” The latter song came across genuinely pained, genuinely confused on 1989’s Like a Prayer, which split the difference between soul-searching and belly-baring for what still stands as her greatest long-player. There, keeping it real was a selling point, to be sure, but her self-expression appeared rooted in true hurt and true hope; on Ray of Light, the 39-year-old’s musings about growing up feel a lot like the result of a timetable. Isn’t it about time she stopped flippantly invoking the God of her Catholic upbringing and turned to something, you know, serious, like “Shanti/Ashtangi”‘s Sanskrit lyric, copped from the Yoga Taravali (whatever that is, as another famed theosophist, T-Bone Burnett, muttered in another context)?

She also borrows several lines from an early-’90s Gap commercial featuring poet Max Blagg for “Sky Fits Heaven.” (According to Warner Bros., Madonna has already made a financial settlement with Blagg, who gets no writing credit here.) “Child fits mother so hold your baby tight” is hardly the worst sentiment on the record, not when Madonna piles on image after image of forest, trees, and “looking for me” on “Mer Girl.” There’s more cleansing-ocean stuff on “Swim,” which does at least leave paparazzi out of its litany of trespassers such as students (killing each other and raping their teachers to boot, she anguishes).

It would hardly be worth picking at the conceptual nits this very good record introduces if Madonna simply had taken the time to get her messages across in a manner as verbally artful as on, say, “Open Your Heart”—or if she had packaged them as cannily as she did Ray of Light’s music. She and Orbit wittily introduce hooky guitar lines into several songs (most overtly the first four, which include the perfect Kim Gordon-style title, “Candy Perfume Girl”), only to whisk them away almost immediately in a tide of more “synthetic” sounds. There are fewer weird, near-genius strokes on the order of Like a Prayer’s Prince duet “Love Song,” but there are no stretches of lameness or tired attempts at being shocking, such as on Erotica, which was at best a forced-sounding adjunct to the Sex book.

And don’t forget “Frozen”—a great Madonna single, despite some silly, overobvious words about emotional coldness and being less than truthful. Her recent disavowal of living her life in the gossip columns has an edge of self-serving faux purity; she knows the comments aimed at a lover (could it be Lourdes’ father Carlos Leon, who has been out of whatever picture of Madonna and child that matters for quite a while now?) are bound to pique our curiosity. Flaws and all, Ray of Light is a head-turning recorded comeback from someone who not that long ago seemed headed down the road to artistic oblivion—even if it’s not as deep as “Holiday.”CP