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Apr 14

MADONNA – “Frozen”

Popular57 comments • 6,163 views

#786, 7th March 1998

frozen Madonna’s first seven Number Ones spanned five years – a major run in itself. Then there’s an eight-year break, and then her final six – which begin with “Frozen” – take a full decade. This second sustained period of success – taking an arc of gentle decline and bending it back to her liking and her terms – is astonishing. How did she do it?

Madonna’s years away from number one were hardly an exile – her experiments, her shifts in technique and priorities happened in public with a string of Top 10 singles. Ray Of Light seemed like a comeback because it felt so focused and complete, not because she’d been away.

But for these purposes, she has. And there are three main differences between the 1990 Madonna and the 1998 one. They’re not all completely positive, but they’re sustainable – they set her up for that long career still to come. “Frozen” is a showcase for all three of them – a perfect return, if not a perfect single.

The first shift is in the singing. Around the time of her starring role in Evita, the last bits of New York scrappiness dropped out of Madonna’s voice. “Frozen” gives us a restrained, trained singer – releasing a huge, slow ballad as the first single from a new album is designed to emphasise that. Madonna sings “Frozen” with conscious delicacy, gently and sadly holding back – even on the chorus – as if her lover’s heart really is a brittle, fragile ice sculpture, something that pressure or anger might shatter. This more kindly Madonna rarely creates the urgency, the stakes, the sense that the moment of the song matters desperately to her (and you) that her 80s singles did. But those instances come hard in anyone’s thirties, and on “Frozen” the tender approach works.

The second shift, which parallels the first, is in her language. Ray Of Light dates from Madonna’s most spiritual phase – her fascination with Kabbalah in particular. And as her interest in Jewish and Eastern mysticism grows, her lyrics take on a less situational, more universal cast. The scenario in Frozen is simple, and expressed in the widest possible terms, lines like “let all the hurt inside of you die” delivered more like a guru than an ex. Madonna lyrics from this point are often very broad – aphoristic, even. Again, this isn’t always to the good. “If I could melt your heart / We’d never be apart” is not the most striking chorus, however grand its setting.

But its setting is very grand, and this is the third shift – a change in how Madonna works with her collaborators. Songwriting and production partners were always very important in her work, but they were generally long-term artistic relationships – Patrick Leonard, her co-writer here, dates back to the 80s records, but this is his last album with Madonna. Jellybean Benitez, who helped her sculpt her early sound, has long gone. Instead – starting with Nellee Hooper and Bjork on the Bedtime Stories album – Madonna now begins to work with musicians and producers with a very specific sound, changing personnel each record.

The unfortunate result of this, critically, is that while the producers she works with – William Orbit, in this case – get a deserved portion of credit for each record, Madonna’s own contribution is occasionally downplayed. But this is the way of working of a woman who is clearly in absolute control of what she produces and how it sounds – it’s much better to think of her from the mid-90s on as a James Brown style bandleader, sustaining her career by cherry-picking young musicians to work with and ensuring she gets exactly what she wants out of them.

In this case, what makes “Frozen” such a good record isn’t picking William Orbit to produce it or Craig Armstrong to do the string arrangements, it’s realising how magnificent those elements might sound together. Orbit’s drum and electronic programming on “Frozen” is extraordinarily abstract for a global smash – a kind of cold, bassless dub approach, where the gaps, echoes and drop-outs matter as much as the beats, which spread sharply, like sudden cracks on a frozen surface. They need Armstrong’s strings to hold the song together. And those strings in turn – a dark, Arctic sea of swells and crests – need the beats to sound more perilous than comforting.

The overall effect is stunning, especially when all three parts – the drums, the strings, Madonna’s imploring voice – peak together for the chorus. The sea beats against walls of ice, the song rises to its full, imperious force, and you feel it must be working – the lover must be hearing. But each time it dies away, and by the end of the song she gives the fight up. Some people refuse to change. But Madonna is not among them.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 30 Apr 2014 #

    Trip-hop’s last laugh!

    I feel I have to also speak up for the Chris Cunningham-directed gothtastic video. As lush, mystical, and indicative of Madonna’s willingness to meet her collaborators half way (in a tube of hair dye) as the song.

  2. 2
    Tom on 30 Apr 2014 #

    Yes, fantastic video and good point.

  3. 3
    lockedintheattic on 30 Apr 2014 #

    On the collaborators – I seem to remember at the time reading that Patrick Leonard was horrified with what William Orbit had done to ‘his’ song. If that’s the case I’m not surprised that this was his last. Think that’s possibly a shame though – while her shift to name producers has left her records generally sounding great, I feel that along the way she’s lost the tunes.

    It’s a fantastic comeback record in every way – the song, the image, the video, the production – all totally unexpected, and the record still sounds fantastic thanks to the interplay between the new voice, the production and the strings. A strong 9 from me; almost a 10 and probably my favourite Madge number 1.

  4. 4
    chelovek na lune on 30 Apr 2014 #

    This is really Madonna at the top of her game. Classy, sophisticated, and fairly subtle too. The production sounds expensive, and worth every last cent, while Madonna sounds assuredly and firmly in control, in only the way that a big name artist could be. The chorus, particularly, is a bit low-key, agreeably so, and possibly the finest of her number ones. I may well go to a 10. A very welcome return, anyway.

  5. 5
    Auntie Beryl on 30 Apr 2014 #

    An unexpectedly wonderful return, one for me she has been retreating from ever since (none of the MDNA singles will grace Popular’s future).

    We’ll discuss William Orbit and Madonna again but I wonder if this is the only chance I’ll have to recommend the Craig Armstrong album”The Space Between Us” here. In amongst all the one off Hooj Choons and Perfecto singles I was buying and playing at the time, that was the morning after album of choice. Can’t speak highly enough of it.

    Frozen is an 8.

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 30 Apr 2014 #

    A remarkable record at any stage of someone’s career, not least Madonna’s. After the relatively poor reception for Evita, Madonna was already striking out for spiritual awakenings, looking towards the East. When the album “Ray Of Light” was released, “Frozen” was the lead single from it, released the same week. Her spiritual transformation from lapsed catholic to witchy mystic was complete. The video, courtesy of Chris Cunningham seemed to underline the transformation. The freezing Mojave Desert, drained of warmth, pre-dawn plays host to the Queen Of Pop as she beguiles her way back to her uncontested (as of yet) throne. Craig Armstrong sets the scene with swells of strings giving way to Orbit’s menacing electronica. “You only see what your eyes want to see” the shape-shifting priestess laments her lover’s emotionless, closed, frozen heart. Priestess? Why not? I’m not sure how far along George R.R. Martin was with A Song Of Ice And Fire, but I see Melisandre here, where once it was Madonna in a remorselessly shifting black cloak.

    The midtempo 104 bpm gives room for the strings, doomy synths and dubby processed beats to carry Madonna on a cloud of witchy otherness. Probably the most gothic #1 we’ve experienced since Shakespear’s Sister. What a way to return to the top spot! (9)

  7. 7
    thefatgit on 30 Apr 2014 #

    #5 Auntie Beryl, yes “The Space Between Us” is a favourite of mine as well.

  8. 8
    mapman132 on 30 Apr 2014 #

    Ray of Light certainly felt like a comeback for me – I pretty much had little to no interest in Madonna during the period 1990-1997 as she seemed to alternate between shock value videos and dull ballads while her creative value circled the drain. A few of these topped the Hot 100, but for me her career might as well have ended in 1989.

    Then the wilderness years ended rather spectacularly with three of the best singles of her career: “Frozen”, “Ray of Light”, and the relatively underrated “Power of Goodbye”. It was as if Madonna suddenly remembered being a pop star should be first and foremost about the music. I’d give these respectively 8.5, 9, and 8/10. Too bad only “Frozen” will show up here (and it also just missed topping the Hot 100), in a perfect pop world all three would’ve hit number one.

  9. 9
    Alfred on 30 Apr 2014 #

    The album’s John the Baptist: remembered as intro but not in its own right. Vastly prefer “Swim,” “Skin,” and “Sky Fits Heaven.”

  10. 10
    Alfred on 30 Apr 2014 #

    That said, I love the strings: they evoke “Unfinished Sympathy.” To my ears, though, “The Power of Goodbye” best conjures the windswept seaspray melancholy (and, you’ll notice, she cowrote it with Rick Nowels, who’s in the trad-song Patrick Leonard category).

  11. 11
    Tom on 30 Apr 2014 #

    Re. the album – I was underwhelmed by it at the time, after enjoying this record. With the title track, I thought the “new Madonna” vocal style meant it just had less bite than her dance tracks had before. “Power Of Goodbye” felt like a lecture (“Frozen” might have done too, if the lyric had been overstressed). I should revisit it, since it’s a well-loved record.

    Her imperial phase for me is still the 85-90 run, even if a couple of the singles weren’t up to much (but then part of the definition of imperial phases is getting away with things). But even if I like later Madonna less on the whole, that’s not saying much, and there is still at least one A-List Madonna record to come on Popular, I would say.

  12. 12
    JR1 on 30 Apr 2014 #

    Strong track, even if some of the lyrics are cliche (melt your heart, hold the key)- but, clearly she was nodding to “Open Your Heart” (which she also did following the “Frozen” performance on the Drowned World Tour). And whenever she utilizes live strings in her music, it’s magical.

    She’s had very strong post-1990 material, but the 1983-1990 era was so epic, so much a soundtrack of an era and the times. And it’s perfectly summed up on The Immaculate Collection.

  13. 13
    lonepilgrim on 30 Apr 2014 #

    I listened to William Orbit’s Strange Cargo album a lot in the early 1990s and I was surprised when I heard that he was going to be involved with Madonna’s new album as I couldn’t imagine him providing the commercial edge that she would want. I was very pleasantly surprised when the album/singles were released and I absolutely loved ‘Ray of light’ the single. I was very surprised to see that it didn’t get to number 1. I like this as well although I think it could be shorter. We’d heard something like this voice from Madonna before on ballads like ‘Live to tell’ but here there is less vulnerability, more detachment.
    The imagery for the video reminds me of the cover to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album.

  14. 14
    Doctor Casino on 30 Apr 2014 #

    Huh, going to have to give this another listen – I remember finding it boring and a bit shapeless; the mm-hmm chorus works as new-age ‘pure moods’ stuff but it never made me exactly burn to hear it again. Background music for a puzzle game with artifact-ridden polygons. I do like that it’s doing something different, and it’s nice for a #1 to have some space to spread out and be evocative rather than direct.

  15. 15
    hectorthebat on 30 Apr 2014 #

    Sample watch: The drums are from “Hot Pants” by Bobby Byrd, the same drums as Wannabe, Pump Up the Volume, Fool’s Gold, and countless others.

  16. 16
    Kinitawowi on 30 Apr 2014 #

    I’m with Doctor Casino, I’m afraid – never quite got why everyone was trying to convince me that this was The Great Comeback when all it did was bore me.

    Vid wasn’t much cop, either.

    4.

  17. 17
    Mark M on 1 May 2014 #

    The album was played a lot in the offices I was working in at the time. It sounded tremendously smart, impressive – at once more grown-up and yet club-inspired. Contemporary yet not faddishly of the moment. She’d dropped the urge to be provocative (only temporarily, alas, it turned out). Thing was, though, I didn’t really enjoy it – I liked the unclassy Madonna; I’ll take Live To Tell or Crazy For You over Frozen any day.

  18. 18
    AMZ1981 on 1 May 2014 #

    My interest in the charts began in Spring 1992 so the first Madonna song I heard was This Used To Be My Playground – those seven previous number ones were already history as far as I was concerned. As Tom says there was a steady stream of top ten singles to balance the failed artistic experiments but she felt like yesterday’s icon. Then when I was seventeen I heard Frozen. It’s hard to say why it struck such a chord with me (maybe because the `if I could melt your heart` refrain chimed with my unrequited crushes of the time) but it became and remains not only my favourite Madonna song but one of my favourite chart toppers of them all. It’s true that the Ray Of Light album – viewed as a whole – is slightly po faced and she’d loosen up on the singles to come but artistically she has never topped this in my opinion.

    Of course it proved a launch pad for the producer as well – not only does William Orbit have a fantastic bunny to come (sung by an act who will be along shortly with one of the worst number ones ever – my knives already sharpened) but he also had a solo hit.

  19. 19
    Elmtree on 1 May 2014 #

    Not a fan of all the Kabbalah stuff-and the lyrics really have all the spirituality of a workout tape-but wow, the music and the deeper voice combine amazingly.

    The melismas in the chorus sound awed, perfectly appropriate, like the only response to the background is to hum along to it. Madonna said she wanted to create music that sounded ancient and modern at the same time, and this perfectly achieves that target and has a well-structured song in front of it-it truly feels like living in a city and then suddenly video-calling someone standing in an empty desert. 7, 8 if the lyrics had been a bit better.

  20. 20
    Ed on 1 May 2014 #

    @12 Immaculate Collection has a fantastic track list, but the tracks themselves are often disappointing: remixes and re-recordings that are invariably inferior to the originals. ‘Into the Groove’ and ‘Like a Prayer’ – two of the greatest pop songs of all time – I remember as being particularly tawdry. (It’s an issue that is going to come up again all too soon on Popular, unfortunately.)

    It’s an irrelevance now in the age of the download, but did Madonna ever do a proper greatest hits album from that era with the original versions?

    As for Frozen, I had remembered liking it, but have not listened to it much since it was a hit, and was shocked by how good it is. The lovely verse melody gave me an almost painful memory-rush of 1998.

    I agree that on balance 80s Madonna is probably preferable, but ‘Ray of Light’ is a great album, especially the first three songs that build to the ecstatic release of the title track. I share all the love for ‘Ray of Light’, the song: a guaranteed 10 in my book.

    There’s a big Bass-o-matic vibe on the album, too, especially on songs like ‘Swim’ and ‘Candy Perfume Girl’, and that has to be a good thing.

  21. 21
    Ed on 1 May 2014 #

    Apologies for accidental multiple posting

  22. 22
    Ed on 1 May 2014 #

    erm… sorry again

  23. 23
    JR1 on 1 May 2014 #

    Ed- yah, the “mixes” get complaints from some. But, other than “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself,” the other versions aren’t that far off of the album versions that casual listeners probably would not pick up on the differences. For me, the original (and lengthier) “Now I know you’re mine” section of “Groove” is the thing that’s missed sorely on the Immaculate version- but, it doesn’t detract much from the fact that, from “holiday” to “Vogue,” it’s a wallop of a listen.

    As for “Frozen”- I’ve always liked it, but it’s never been near the top of my Madonna list. I do love like that it sounded adventurous, especially for top 40 radio. That’s Madonna for ya.

  24. 24
    swanstep on 1 May 2014 #

    @JR1, 23. No, I reckon Ed’s right – the Immaculate Collection mixes are terrible almost across the board. The 2-disc greatest hits collection, Celebration, mostly corrects this problem but still has, e.g., The Immaculate Collection’s version of Crazy For You. In general, one’s better off picking up the original albums (widely available in very cheap sets) and the few non-album tracks like CFY can be tracked down in their original single versions online.

  25. 25
    swanstep on 1 May 2014 #

    Before I get around to thinking what to say about ‘Frozen’, the Bootie Blog’s current top link is to an obvious but nifty mash-up of ‘Frozen’ with ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen. Go here if interested.

  26. 26
    Ed on 1 May 2014 #

    Pleased I am not alone. ‘The Immaculate Collection’ makes me feel like Roger Scruton, or possibly Harold Bloom complaining about the quality of verse-speaking in modern Shakespeare productions.

  27. 27
    swanstep on 1 May 2014 #

    I agree with a lot of Tom’s review, esp. as a gloss on the underlying album. RofL is indeed a terrific album and it wasn’t all Orbit’s doing: M’s singing on the record and live in this period was probably her best (e.g., check out ROL live on Oprah – the best it ever sounded live) – she’d evidently really been doing those scales and exercises since Evita. And at that exact moment when her own instrument was at its strongest she found a sympathetic collaborator who thrilled her and whose chilled out side glistened and was cool but dignified enough for a mature star. I like the whole album (notwithstanding its 66 minute bloat) with the Drowned World/Substitute for Love, RofL, Power of Goodbye, Nothing Really Matters, Little Star being particular faves. ‘Frozen’, however, doesn’t quite work for me. Pleasant enough I suppose, but also sort of a poor cousin to Bjork’s Hunter and Joga from the previous year (and Chris Cunningham’s vid work here doesn’t reach the heights of his work with Bjork, Aphex, and others during this period). So, while I’m delighted to welcome M. back to Popular, for me ‘Frozen’ is a:
    6

  28. 28
    Mark G on 1 May 2014 #

    I often felt Beth Orton’s “Superpinkymandy” was some sort of ‘first-attempt’ at doing this sort of album. That one didnd’t work, the arrangements tended to overwhelm and were often unsympathetic to the source material and the singer. On this, maybe because the singer is stronger, maybe the arrangements suit but in all the mistakes aren’t made the second time around.

  29. 29
    Garry on 1 May 2014 #

    #13 I first heard of Orbit when I ran across copies of the Strange Cargo Hinterland album and last Torch Song album in the radio shelves. I also found an 80s vinyl single (can’t remember which). Like you I was surprised he had moved into other realms when Blur’s album was released and the Madonna album was referenced in press releases.

    For me Frozen compares to Bjork and EBTG’s Walking Wounded, and comes up a bit short. It sounds a bit pedestrian now. I’m in no doubt the participants on Frozen have great skill, and it is never quite boring, but even at the time it was late in the day for this kind of thing, especially as Homogenic was a year earlier.

    It’s similar to how the success of the jungly/dnd-y Addicted to Bass felt a few years out of date in 1998. Or maybe not – I’m still not sure how Addicted to Bass got popular. Maybe a better comparison is with David Bowie’s Earthling album, a fine singer and craftsman dipping into a form already losing (or had lost) it’s luster. Bowie saved Earthling with his typical personas and not going the whole hog into the format. Madonna, Orbit and co are laying on the whole trip hop/beat thing with a far larger production budget. So good but not great.

  30. 30
    Ed on 1 May 2014 #

    This is the real precursor, surely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-7hfIiKdZU

    Probably explains the slightly dated feel, because ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ was eight years ago by then.

    Bassomatic (or Bass-O-Matic) were brilliant in their day, though.

    This is another cracker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_XZJZo67AA

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