It strikes me as odd, the marked shift in lyrical approach between Ray of Light and American Life Music was always a transitional record, but especially now it sounds like a tactical rearrangement. Lets compare Drowned World/Substitute for Love to Im So Stupid. Both cover the exact same thematic ground, yet DW/SFL sounds like a real pop song, whereas ISS feels like it could have been cribbed from a compendium of Junior High angst poetry.
I really love "Die Another Day," and I think if the filmmakers had shown as much vision as Madonna and Mirwais had, the Bond franchise would be newly enervated instead of coasting on the questionably added appeal of Halle Berry. "Die Another Day" is a stunner, a truly innovative pop song that takes the cinematic grandeur that we expect from Bond themes, then creates something new with it. "I'm gonna avoid the cliché," she sings, and it's true. Bond themes have been thinly rewriting Goldfinger and its chord progressions for decades now, and the more people who vocally proclaim their dissatisfaction with this track only leave more resolute as to its utter fabulosity. Dont get me wrong, I love a classic Bond theme, but shouldnt the form have evolved some in forty years? "Easy Ride" is somber and pretty, mired in a lot of the lyrical themes which at times threaten to derail the record into the land of bad therapy-rock, yet here is another example of the Mirwais coin toss coming up a winner, as the last part of this song, when you have the clipped orchestra samples meshing with Mirwais' stylophonic synth farts, is just stunning. It is still overly somber and filled with Madonna in self-doubt/spiritual exploration mode (analogy time: Madonnas American Life album is to Boy George/Jesus Loves Yous The Martyr Mantras: discuss ), but it resonates deeply. I just miss the sense of fun that used to come with a Madonna record. Im trying to think of a fun Madonna record since Thief of Hearts. Beautiful Stranger, kind of. Any other suggestions? Were talking about an icon who has stayed relevant for twenty-plus years, a woman who can get club play out of barely-produced mash-ups of instrumentals and phrases in which she taunts mp3 downloaders, and I still feel like Im in church when I listen to some of her newer records. What kind of world are we living in when Swept Away is more fun than her two most recent albums?
American Life is not a great album, but it's a half-great album, and I can honestly say that I'm intrigued with what the next step is going to sound like for Madonna. Do I wish she'd give Pat Leonard a call? Oh yeah. Do I think an appearance from Niki and Donna would have been nice? Certainly. Does it go without saying that she needs to back off Mirwais? Praeteritively, yes. But you could do a lot worse than Madonna has offered here, and I earnestly recommend a second listen. If you skip "Hollywood," "I'm So Stupid," "Nobody Knows Me," and "Mother and Father," it clicks, and marvelously.