Madonna: ‘American Life’

In light of Madonna’s tremendous ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’, which we discovered and reviewed earlier this year, we felt compelled to seek out her previous effort, ‘American Life’ – an album that we had, thus far, simply disregarded.

Having been an on/off fan of the immaculate one since ‘Like A Virgin’, and having picked up many of her releases in one format or another (including a sickening number of singles!), it seemed out of character to lose interest after ‘Music’ – which, while not nearly to the hauteur of ‘Ray Of Light’, contained quite a few tremendous moments.

But such was the case: I simply couldn’t be bothered at the time.

And I wasn’t alone. The album faltered immediately upon release, and no effort by Madonna could help it to pick up speed. For some reason, people were barely paying attention to her. This was puzzling, following the massive success of the single “Die Another Day”, which had saturated media outlets months earlier.

Was it because she had bored (or annoyed) the masses with her most recent film, ‘Swept Away’? Was her newly domesticated image unappealing to all those who had connected with her free-spirited ways? Had the marketing machine simply dropped the ball, having completely forsaken ‘Music’ well before it should have run out of steam – thereby killing approximately a year of Madge’s much-needed spotlight? Or was it the critically horrible timing of Iraquiproquo, which cast an impenetrable  shadow on lead single’s reevaluaton of the American Dream?

We may never know. But one thing that we can say with some certainty, is that the album undoubtedly didn’t help itself.

Not only was the release of a socio-politically charged album from Madonna a challenging concept at best, seeing as she has never been the most articulate commentator, but with an american public questioning their very existence at the time, it was like casually throwing a lighted match in a barrel of gun powder. Granted, it could have set the stage for a memorable spectacle (as she probably intended)… or it could have blown up in her face; instead it merely fizzled out.

From the onset, she met with controversy because of the video for the title track, which was labelled unpatriotic and/or in bad taste (as many things were in the early post-9/11 days). Since this type of publicity is the last thing that a label or artist wants, the video was scrapped right before its unveiling and a rapidly concocted alternate version was filmed and released in its place.

Clearly, this was not a well thought out marketing strategy, so this ‘plan B’ clearly couldn’t do the work that it needed to do: which is to build excitement over the upcoming new release – much like a movie trailer does.

Instead, the album was stillborn.

While Madonna tried to keep it alive in various ways, another key element impeded her efforts: ‘Anerican Life’ really isn’t very good. In fact, it’s the dullest one since ‘Bedtime Stories’ ( which was a bit of a yawner), if not of her whole career. To put it succinctly, the disinterest generated by this platter ensures that it will remain shelved by this listener (and, no doubt, many others) for a very long time.

Granted, there is one number that is worthy of mention, “Nothing Fails”, with its lush choirs that hark back to “Like A Prayer”, and a few decent ones, “Mother And Father”, Easy Ride and “Hollywood”. But for every “Nothing Fails” (which is, clearly, no more than morning dew in an arrid desert), there is the decidedly less delightful “I’m So Stupid’, which plays as dumb as it sounds.

One of the main problems is the overall flow of the album: while the songs generally stand well on their own, they blend like oil and water. There’s a lack of cohesion between the numbers that Madonna managed to avoid on her most recent effort (a change of producer always helps to move things along, doesn’t it? 🙂

Thankfully, the energetic James Bond theme “Die Another Day” was included on the disc. While it was a great tune (but a horrible 007 theme!), it proves that the album needed some serious padding from the onset. It certainly doesn’t have any real place amongst the others; evidently, everyone involved was hoping that the popularity of this single might jumpstart sales (case-in-point: remixes of the track were also included on the “American Life” maxi-single).

No such luck.

Suggestions that the album is gutted of any life wouldn’t be too far off. Madonna stripped this one as much as she ever will, putting the onus on warm acoustic guitars and peeling away the cold glossy production that is a staple of her catalogue. The unfortunate result, however, is an album that doesn’t pulsate as much as it should; while she tried to play with everyone’s heartstrings, she succeeded mostly in removing the heartbeats.

Thus, we (belatedly) pronounce ‘American Life’ dead on arrival. God had mercy on it, and on us.

We give it a 4.5 out of 10.

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