Review Summary: Madonna's oft-critiqued "MUSIC 2.0" is actually better than her previous album with Mirwais, and one of her finest.
Madonna. She's known around the world as the Queen of Pop. Even those who don't like her can generally say she makes great pop music from time to time. However, after the (vastly overrated) Euro-trash barnstomper that was MUSIC, Madonna made an album that divided many. Not because it was particularly controversial (although pulling the video for the lead single didn't help), but because many claimed it was actually BAD. Now this would be a new direction for the chameleon-like Madonna to take.
Contrary to what many have said, AMERICAN LIFE is not a bad album. It's not even a good album. It's a rather great album, full of hooks, interesting production, and acoustic guitar (yeah, it sounds better than it does on paper). I can only speculate as to why so many people derided this as refuse, but that's not why I'm writing this. I'm here to tell you why AMERICAN LIFE is a great album, and one of Madonna's best.
The album opener, and first single is "American Life". A glitchy, sassy piece, and a great way to start off the album. Lyrically, Madonna delves into questioning her "American life". Although as a first single, it was a risky (see: WRONG) choice. Although many find the rap section in the middle annoying, I find it brings a delicious irony to the song, and I think it really is a personal taste issue. The overall sound of the song is an excellent way to introduce the listener to the electro-acoustic sound of the album.
The next song, and second single, is "Hollywood", which I feel would have made for a better first single. A little more acoustic, groovy, and there's no rap. Madonna sings in a disillusioned style about trying to "make it" in Hollywood. A very breezy listen.
"I'm So Stupid" is one of the more rock-tinged songs on the album, and although it is interesting sonically, it's not one of my favorites. Perhaps the word "stupid" just puts me off, but this is the one song on the album I find myself skipping occasionally. There are nice electronic elements hidden throughout it if listened to through headphones though.
After the opening trilogy of songs about disillusionment and loss of self, "Love Profusion" is a surprising and welcome change of pace. Sung to a lover, Madonna's vocals are warm and affecting, while Mirwais adds nice background vocals to the chorus. A pleasant acoustic guitar follows throughout the song, and provides a nice anchor for this inviting song.
"Nobody Knows Me" is more electro-based/dance-oriented than most of the other songs on the album, and I love it. Vocoder effects, spacey synths, bubbly bass all make this a great song to dance to, and the simple chorus of "Nobody knows me, like you know me" make a simple and effective statement.
What many see as the highlight and centerpiece of the album, "Nothing Fails", is an excellent ballad to "the one". Mostly acoustic, with a few electronic elements thrown in here and there, this song is often the only one on the album that can bring me close to tears. I love the lyrics: "I'm not religious, but I feel so moved. I'm not religious, but it makes me wanna pray." With a gospel choir coming in at the end, this song also reminds me a bit of "Like A Prayer", and we all know how good that song is.
"Intervention" continues on the same path that "Nothing Fails" started: largely acoustic, moving ballads. However, this one is about how love can change us, and Madonna's need to save the one she loves.
"X-Static Process" has a title which makes it appear to be the most electronically-oriented song on the album, but it's just the opposite. All acoustic guitar and Madonna's voice, this simple song is about the (ecstatic) process of falling in love. The vocal harmonies that appear as she sings "When you're around, I don't know who I am" are beautiful, and the simplicity of this song make it a real standout.
Madonna returns to electro with "Mother And Father", this time using a strange nasally voice (perhaps to recall the voice of a child"). Lyrically, this song is at odds with the feel of the music. A disco-like beat and upbeat synths contrast greatly with the words, which deal with Madonna losing her mother as a child, and her father not being there for her after the occurrence. Interesting piece overall.
I'm just going to come right out and say I love "Die Another Day". While the movie was awful, I found Madonna's electroclash theme song to be the highlight. Great use of strings, a perfect dark feel. great start-stops. I thoroughly enjoy it, especially the campy use of Sigmund Freud in the lyrics.
Album closer takes us into introspective mode, with Madonna singing about wanting to earn the things in her life. She doesn't want an "Easy Ride", which just so happens to be the song title. Acoustic guitar, epic strings, and an excellent part towards the end that sounds like the CD is skipping (in a good way). A great way to close the album.
Overall, this album is grossly underrated; an interesting experiment into acoustic guitar, folk songs, and electro elements that stands out as one of my favorite Madonna albums.