Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Beautiful Mess: Madonna’s American Life!

The Good: Themes, Moments of voice, A few moments of musical accompaniment
The Bad: Some terrible rhymes, Much of the dance music is insipid, Short
The Basics: An unfortunately erratic album, American Life at least shows some depth for Madonna and manages to be worth listening to!

There are few musical artists in the world (or in history) as big and successful as Madonna. So, when she releases an album that is (comparatively) a commercial dud, it still tends to have the sales record that indie artists envy and Madonna goes back on tour, goes back to the studio, and produces her next work, regardless of the commercial or critical beating the album took. By comparison, I am a virtually unknown novelist and blogger whose published works have sold dismally. My point here is that Madonna easily shrugged off the critical slamming of her album American Life quite a while ago and a defense of the album from me means absolutely nothing to her.

That said, I find myself in the odd position of bucking popular opinion on the topic of Madonna’s album American Life. To be sure, the album is erratic and the inconsistencies in it are positively annoying, but the rebellion against the familiar works for Madonna and her message on the concept album is largely well-considered. American Life is an album that consciously rejects materialism and struggles with the ramifications of massive success while wrestling with lingering childhood issues for the artist (or at least the musical version sung about on her songs). While the album failed to significantly chart a single, the album as a whole ends up being very listenable . . . at least after the first two or three times through (it makes me glad I listen to every album eight times before reviewing them!).

With only eleven songs, clocking out at 49:39, American Life is largely the creative work of Madonna. Madonna co-wrote all eleven songs and she is credited as a co-producer on each track as well. While Madonna does not play any musical instruments on American Life, she provides both the primary and main backing vocals on each track. Given how autobiographical the album appears and how successful Madonna had been leading up the album, one finds it hard to argue that the album is anything but her musical vision for the work.

The weird inconsistencies with American Life start with the music. Starting off as the most banal possible dance album, American Life eventually sheds the pretense that Madonna fits into only the one niche and begins presenting Madonna as pop-rock balladeer. After the electronic percussion-driven dance songs “American Life” (which has to have one of the worst rap interludes in music history), “Hollywood” (which might have been great were it not for the shouted interstitial bit), and “I’m So Stupid,” the softer, more melodic “Love Profusion” and “Nobody Knows Me” stand out. While the album reverts to dance-pop with “Die Another Day,” the substance of American Life is in the middle where Madonna returns to her pop roots as opposed to keeping every song danceable.

It is also on the middle tracks that Madonna’s natural voice comes out. On songs like “Intervention” and “Mother And Father,” Madonna shows both vocal range – going both higher and lower than one might expect – and he voice unadulterated by electronic production elements. And for a change, the listener gets to hear that Madonna has a beautiful natural voice that can make a pretty significant leap in register from soprano to low alto/tenor ranges! When she is not busy singing fast on American Life, Madonna sings low and slow and with a decent emotional range.

What seals the album’s fate for inconsistency are the lyrics on American Life. On American Life, Madonna seems to want to say something deeply personal . . . but she does not seem to know quite who she is or what she wants that statement to be. As a result, American Life loses a lot of its potential punch. For example, on “Nothing Fails,” Madonna sings about how she is not religious (ironically employing what sounds like a Gospel choir as backup on the song), but on the subsequent three songs, she evokes a great deal of religious imagery explicitly calling out to Jesus Christ (“X-Static Process” and “Mother And Father”) and referencing Satan (“Intervention”).

But the anti-materialism bent of American Life is poisoned almost immediately by the song “American Life.” While the song muses “Do I have to change my name? / Will it get me far? / Should I lose some weight? / Am I gonna be a star?” Madonna falls into a pretty banal rhyme scheme with the lines “I'd like to express my extreme point of view / I'm not Christian and I'm not a Jew [For the record, not at all an “extreme” point of view!] / I'm just living out the American dream / And I just realized that nothing Is what it seems” (“American Life”). It’s almost laughable to consider that someone who has wrestled with fame is only just now in her career realizing that there are masks and illusions in her chosen field. Moreover, it’s virtually impossible to sell a song asking if one might become a success when they list off their staff (and it’s pretty extensive!). Note to Madonna: you know you’ve made it when you can afford the three nannies, five bodyguards and the jet. There’s no doubting here . . .

Ironically, it is Madonna’s ability to market that sells the best song on American Life. There is absolutely nothing new about the sentiment or words to “Nothing Fails,” but when Madonna sings “It was not a chance meeting / Feel my heart beating / You're the one / You could take all this, take it away / I'd still have it all / 'Cause I've climbed the tree of life / And that is why, no longer scared if I fall,” she makes it sound surprisingly fresh and new!

Unfortunately, the potentially personal and revelatory album American Life is plagued by contradictions and Madonna’s apparent attempt to remain close to the most marketable aspects of her music. Still, there are enough divergences from the dance/electronica sound to allow listeners to get something truly special and worth listening to out of American Life.

Despite my general aversion to religious imagery in music, the best track on American Life is the solid and enjoyable (though slightly repetitive) “Nothing Fails.” The low point is probably “American Life.”

For other works by Madonna, please check out my reviews of:
Bedtime Stories
“Nothing Really Matters” (single)
Ray Of Light
Something To Remember
Confessions On A Dance Floor
I'm Going To Tell You A Secret


For other music reviews, please visit my complete Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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