As Boy George never sang but ably demonstrated, every chameleon runs the risk of shedding one skin too many

As Boy George never sang but ably demonstrated, every chameleon runs the risk of shedding one skin too many. Performers skilled in image manipulation face an eternally uncertain future: What if the next phase is the one that causes the audience to run screaming for the hills? Michael Jackson and Prince are the most momentous cautionary examples of artists who failed to take heed of the warning signals that their penchant for the exotic had taken a turn for the disturbing. Cyndi Lauper metamorphosed herself into oblivion. Then there’s Madonna.

Though her career decline was in no way as steep as the aforementioned artists, Madonna’s enduring role as liberator of the national libido rendered her increasingly wearisome. But just as her public perception was becoming similar to Mrs. Dinsmoor, the potty-mouthed, couture-clad, batty old hag Anne Bancroft portrays in the recent remake of Great Expectations , three events halted Madonna World from becoming the least patronized peep show on the block. (1) She had a baby. (2) She was hit by the epiphany that she was not, in fact, the center of the universe. (3) She was seized by the urge to make electronic-based dance music as challenging, visceral and uncompromising as records she was hearing by Tricky, Goldie and her Maverick employees, the Prodigy.

Luckily, she was entirely unsuccessful with (3). Tricky, Goldie and the Prodigy laughingly turned down or ignored her requests for collaboration. She turned instead to long-serving British ambient noodler and remixer William Orbit, who became her partner in something Madonna has never before experienced: a marriage made in Heaven. Tricky, Goldie and the lads from the Prodigy would have considered it their duty to mess with mass audience expectations. They would, no doubt, have persuaded her to warble, shriek and moan over pounding, distorted rhythm tracks and grinding industrial samples. And she’d have called them geniuses for it. William Orbit, on the other hand, has constructed some beautiful, shimmering music over which Madonna sings in a lush, expressive voice developed, ironically, through the rigors of grappling with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sucky score for Evita .

Appropriately for an album soaked in themes of spiritual salvation, Ray of Light (Maverick-Warner Brothers) has entirely redeemed Madonna’s shaky reputation. Her newly minted public face-that of the dewy-fresh, Sanskrit-literate, cabala-conversant, om-ing New Age nurturer-may turn out to be no more sincere than a longtime World Wrestling Federation contender’s sudden conversion to the upstart New World Order. But it’s much more in tandem with the times.

This year’s Madonna has gone from sneering “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me”-the lovely refrain of “Human Nature” from her previous album, Bedtime Stories -to intoning reverently, “I worship the guru’s lotus feet, awakening the happiness of the self revealed,” on the dance floor mantra “Shanti Ashtangi.” The empire builder who once ground out the spirits of ex-lovers like so many cigarette butts now displays vulnerability and regret for public consumption. “I traded love for fame without a second thought,” she muses on the opening “Drowned World-Substitute for Love,” and elsewhere she ruminates on fear of solitude, feelings of emptiness and the dead end that is life in the fast lane.

Whenever an artist of stature gets to cleansing his or her soul in such a manner, the only appropriate response is: so what? But William Orbit’s delicately assembled electronic backwash and Madonna’s finely tuned ear for a hook quash any such envy-inspired insensitivity. If she’d attempted to wax confessional in a style redolent of Alanis Morissette, Madonna would, I guarantee, have been a goner. Instead, the record soars.

As rich as much of Mr. Orbit’s musical contribution to Ray of Light is, what lifts the record effortlessly above the rest of Madonna’s output in the 1990’s is that, rather than being any kind of great leap forward, it actually harks back to her finest-ever album, 1989’s Like a Prayer . Back from that era is her most melodically gifted collaborator, Patrick Leonard, who co-writes a few songs here, including both the epic goth single “Frozen” and “Sky Fits Heaven,” which lifts its hook from Like a Prayer ‘s busted marriage post-mortem, “Till Death Us Do Part.” Back, too, is her exploration of religious ecstasy. But when she sang “It feels like home” on the hit single “Like a Prayer,” she was clinging to Catholicism. When she sings “I feel like I just got home” on “Ray of Light” … uh, I’m guessing she’s talking about the dispersion of her energy throughout the metaphysical universe.

She’s also still dwelling on the death of her mother on “Mer Girl,” a video-game-like narrative which finds Madonna running through endless obstacles until she reaches an open grave and then “I smelt her burning flesh, her rotting bones, her decay.” While Like a Prayer contained a lullaby, “Dear Jessie,” written for Patrick Leonard’s offspring, she coos “Little Star” to her own much-publicized progeny. When you hear Madonna sigh, “God gave a present to me made of flesh and bones,” it’s almost like the whole Sex book thing never happened.

Not only is Ray of Light an object lesson in image resuscitation, it also has the potential to be a life-changing record. Specifically, it will change the lives of every lunkheaded alternative-rock outfit staring at the imminent failure of their sophomore album, as well as every tune-free electronic act signed in the electronica feeding frenzy. After a cursory listen to the ecstatic title track of Ray of Light , in which limpid indie-angst guitars jockey for position with burbling keyboards, and Madonna gives the most abandoned song-reading she’s ever committed to record, every A&R guy in the country is going to be rushing for the nearest cellular phone. The rock groups are going to be ordered to plug in some synthesizers, and the electro outfits are going to have to enlist girl singers. By that time, of course, Madonna will have moved on to something else. As long as it’s not Lourdes’ first single, I think we’re on safe ground. As Boy George never sang but ably demonstrated, every chameleon runs the risk of shedding one skin too many