Warner Brothers, 2003
REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/22/2009
This wasn’t the way Madonna wanted her record label Maverick to end. After experiencing some highs with signing acts like Alanis Morissette, The Prodigy, and Erasure, Madonna herself was the one who hit the wall the hardest when American Life was panned by listeners and critics in 2003. Its style was dubbed “folktronica,” which was an incompatible blend of acoustic and electronic music. When her previous album Music had become a hit, Madonna chose to stick with the same producer (Frenchman Mirwais Ahmadzai) for American Life. That was mistake number two.
Strike three came when Madonna abruptly held back releasing the video clip for the title track, which was the first single released. Mind you, this was back when people actually still cared about videos on MTV. The graphically violent piece set on a fashion runway was a juicy political indictment on war at a time when we were just about to invade
As for the good news, American Life boasted some amazing dance remixes, most of which became instant #1s on the Billboard club play chart. Along with the dreadful rap-infused title track, “Die Another Day,” “Hollywood,” and “Love Profusion” all set dance floors on fire, setting the stage for Madonna’s killer follow-up comeback album, Confessions On A Dance Floor. Personally, I kinda dug this new serious, ultra-personal Madonna, from her Ché Guevara stance, to her straightened chestnut hair and heavy dark eyeliner, to her camouflage attire – combat boots included. The self-referential lyrics would be the closest she would ever come to actually sounding intimate.
She does take the self-deprecation a little too far, especially on the ill-advised “I’m So Stupid.” Why put yourself down, Madge? Don’t we all have a lot to learn as we go through life? The creaky acoustic guitar thing gets old really quick, making a track like “X-Static Process” all the more forgettable. And, as if we hadn’t heard enough about her parents before on albums like Like A Prayer and Ray Of Light, she uses them for fodder one more time on the sloppy “Mother And Father.”
Time has been kind to American Life. It’s been one of those Madonna albums that we almost feel bad for. With such simple arrangements, there was nowhere for Madonna’s simple and trite lyrics to hide. Kudos to her then, for putting her own limitations on full display. Yes, we were let down by this album. There just wasn’t enough variation or substance to sink our teeth into. Then again, maybe it was genius to come off so slippery.