If Madonna's lyrics are to be trusted - and given her penchant for public disguise, that's a big if - then mark my words: something ain't right at the Ciccone- Ritchie home. Presumptuous? Maybe. But a casual glance at the lyric sheet for American Life, Madonna's bipolar 10th album, proves that at the very least, the world's most famous yoga-practicing B-movie Cabalist is going through a rough patch. If you don't believe her words, listen to her voice. American Life is the first Madonna record that suffers from a complete lack of exuberance. It's not bad, but like a Prince album without lust or an Eminem song without rage, it takes some getting used to.
Like Music, Madonna's far more buoyant previous album, American Life is evenly split between upbeat techno tunes and midtempo ballads. Most of the techno songs are about the mechanization and superficiality of modern life. The production, by Mirwais Ahmadzai, is predictably stuttering and jumpy. The tracks sound fussed over, but they're also full of surprising grooves and are primed for club play. It's the vocals that could use a remix. Like Laurence Fishburne's oddball Morpheus in The Matrix, Madonna tries to accentuate the plight of humanity by enunciating like a robot. Her mechanical rap at the end of the first single, American Life - "I'm drinking a soy latte/ I get a double shotè/ It goes right through my body/ And you know I'm satisfied" - may be ironic, but it's also thoroughly annoying. There are a couple of other techno dogs, most notably Die Another Day, which isn't just the worst James Bond theme of all time (and no, I haven't forgotten Sheena Easton's) but also the most soulless song of Madonna's career.
Blessedly, there's plenty of soul elsewhere on American Life. For most of the gorgeous Love Profusion, Madonna wraps her voice - that candy-coated piece of plastic we've come to know and love - around a simple acoustic-guitar hook and some achy lyrics: "There is no comprehension/ There is real isolation/ There is so much destruction/ What I want is a celebration." She is similarly relaxed and woeful on Nothing Fails, Intervention and album standout
X-Static Process, which opens with the delicacy of a Gordon Lightfoot song and peaks with the self-pitying bridge "I always wished that I could find/ Someone as beautiful as you/ But in the process I forgot that I was special too."
These sad songs are pretty good, but they're not eloquent enough to make you forget the techno disasters or to push American Life up to the level of Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen's "Who the hell did I marry?" album. Instead, they just leave you feeling sad for her, sad for us and curious as to what will come next.