American Life is an album performed by a vocalist who has abandoned the U.S. for the U.K. and co-produced by a French techno mastermind, recorded during a time of strife in America, and released just after the country completed a war. Given that context and given that the vocalist is arguably the biggest star in the world, the title can't help but carry some import, carry the weight of social commentary. And it follows through on that promise, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, but either way, American Life winds up as the first Madonna record with ambitions as serious as a textbook. It plays as somberly as either Like a Prayer or Ray of Light, just as it delves into an insular darkness as deep as Erotica while retaining the club savviness of the brilliant, multi-colored Music. This is an odd mixture, particularly when it's infused with a searching, dissatisfied undercurrent and a musical sensibility that is at once desperate and adventurous, pitched halfway between singer/songwriterisms and skimming of current club culture. It's pulled tight between these two extremes, particularly because the intimate guitar-based songs (and there are a lot of them, almost all beginning with just her and a guitar) are all personal meditations, with the dance songs usually functioning as vehicles for social commentary. Even if the sparer ballads are introspective, they're treated as soundscapes by producer Mirwais, giving them an unsettling eerie quality that is mirrored by the general hollowness of the club songs. While there are some interesting sounds on these tracks, they sound bleak and hermetically sealed, separate from what's happening either in the mainstream or in the underground. Perhaps that's because she's aligned herself with such flash-in-the-pan trends as electroclash, a hipster movement that's more theoretical than musical, whose ill effects can be heard on the roundly panned James Bond theme "Die Another Day," featured toward the end of American Life. Then again, it could also be that this is the first time that Madonna has elected to rap -- frequently and frenetically -- on a record, something that logistically would fit with Mirwais' dense, house-heavy productions, but sound embarrassingly awkward coming out of her mouth. But that insular feel also comes from the smaller-scale, confessional songs, particularly because Mirwais doesn't give them depth and the songs themselves are imbalanced, never quite having a notable hook in the music or words. Even so, there's a lot that's interesting about American Life -- the half-hearted stabs at politics fall aside, and there are things bubbling in the production that are quite infectious, while the stretch from "Nobody Knows Me" to "X-Static Process" in the middle of the record can be quite moving. But, overall, American Life is better for what it promises than what it delivers, and it's better in theory than practice.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine