Album Review: Madonna's American Life

Well, dear reader, I have decided to abandon my "Pop Flop" feature idea. Though I initially thought it would be a interesting venture, I realized that the concept interfered with how I think and write about music. I like writing about music that excites me, whether because it is interesting or well made. Frankly, any album I felt compelled to write about I also never felt comfortable labeling a flop; I think each project has merit and its own successes. That said, I will definitely write many album reviews this year for projects new and old. Below is the only review I actually finished for "Pop Flop," and it is indicative of problems with that series idea: it's not a perfect record, but it has some compelling stretches and I'm glad Madonna chased her creative bliss to record it.

Failure is relative. When we talk about the disappointment of a record by a pop superstar, we are comparing the success of that project to her previous work or that of her peers. Even an album that is considered a grand misstep like Madonna's American Life would be considered a hit for a less prominent artist. (It was, after all, certified platinum.) It could also be argued that had a lesser known or independent artist released American Life, it would have garnered a warmer critical reception and considered a creative boon.

When it dropped in 2003,  American Life experienced problems because the Queen of Pop released the most abrasive material as singles, starting with the cloying "American Life," which is cast as an anti-war song in its video but is actually a meditation on fame and consumerism, followed by the aggressive (though more melodic) pop culture critique "Hollywood" and the plodding "Love Profusion." These almost-pop songs fail because they lack accessible production. The first half of American Life is plagued with cutting electronic sounds, and Madonna's vocals are so heavily processed she sounds inhuman.

While it has its problems, Madonna's ninth studio album has more warmth than most listeners remember. The last half of the album works as an electro-folk record not all that removed from some of Joni Mitchell's material. Madonna and producer Mirwais Ahmadzai simplify the production here. The best tunes are a suite of songs that focus on Madonna's voice and acoustic guitar: "Nothing Fails," "Intervention," and "X-Static Process;" none of the these tracks rock the world, but they are intimate and interesting slices of autobiography. The more dressed up "Mother and Father," hit "Die Another Day," and closer "Easy Ride" also work because their production feels more focused on supporting the songs rather than hacking through them.

American Life is not a great album, but had its last six tracks been released as an EP, the narrative surrounding the project might have been different. Though Madonna attempted an abrasive stance when introducing the album, it's her softer material that actually works.

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