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Review: Madonna, American Life

As with most Madonna albums, it’s impossible to talk about the music without addressing the cultural and social context that produced it.

3.5

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Madonna, American Life

When Entertainment Weekly inexplicably placed Madonna’s debut LP at #5 on its list of modern classics last month, aptly calling the eight post-disco, post-punk dance songs that comprise the album (six of which could be described as hits, depending on your definition of the word) “scrappy,” it failed to acknowledge that Madonna (and Madonna) would likely have been forgotten along with jelly bracelets and headbands fashioned out of torn scarves had the album not been followed by at least a decade’s worth of some of the most captivating pop music ever recorded. Madonna herself even likened the album to music for aerobics classes and was eager to shack up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and flex her creative muscle for her career-defining follow-up, Like a Virgin.

This summer, Madonna turns 25, but 2008 also marks the fifth anniversary of a wholly different Madonna album, one that couldn’t possibly be any further removed from that scrappy debut: American Life. You’d never even know the same artist made both records. Aside from “Holiday,” a song she didn’t write, Madonna seemed more interested in ruling the world than saving it back in 1983; two decades later, American Life found the pop singer at her most political, confrontational, and to many, abrasive. It was her first and, to date, only flop, scanning less than a million copies despite its platinum certification and sporting no hits besides the forward-thinking Bond theme “Die Another Day,” which cracked the Top 10 the previous fall and was—dubiously, at least it seemed at the time—tacked onto the track list in a move that ultimately insured that American Life wouldn’t be Madonna’s only hitless album.

As with almost every Madonna album, save for the first one, it’s nearly impossible to talk about the music without addressing the cultural and social context that produced it. Some have claimed that’s why the singer’s image and marketing has always been the focus of her career, at the cost of fairly assessing the actual music, but I think this fact only strengthens the case for Madonna as a true artist. Art without cultural context is like war without a political one. And this time around, politics and war itself played a pivotal role in the construction, marketing, and ultimate perception and consumption (or lack thereof) of American Life—despite there being very little in the way of political commentary throughout the album.

More so than any other artist who emerged in the video era, Madonna’s songs can’t (and shouldn’t) be divorced from the images she assigns to them, and American Life’s failure can be traced directly to the video for its title track (we’ll ignore, for a moment, the quality of the actual song). “American Life” may have been the first time in Madonna’s career where she voluntarily censored herself; moreover, it may have been the first time she made a creative choice out of fear. In the original unreleased version of the video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, Madonna and a band of unconventional beauties storm a fashion show that includes models dressed in military garb and gas masks, Middle Eastern children modestly strutting their stuff, video screens depicting scenes from war, and limbless soldiers trailing blood down the catwalk. Madonna and her fashion terrorists pummel the paparazzi with water from an industrial-size hose while the audience continues to hoot and holler at the spectacle:

The backlash Madonna likely would have suffered from an already-emboldened and not-so-far-anymore far right would have made the whipping she endured following Sex seem like harmless roleplay, but the video turned a trite, self-aggrandizing, and often awkward song about privilege into a startling comment on the obscenity of war and materialism—one that would have undoubtedly been looked back on as brave. Following up “American Life” with “Hollywood” was nearly as ballsy: “Music stations always play the same songs/I’m bored with the concept of right and wrong,” Madge sings during the bridge before declaring that “this bird has flown” and instructing her audience to “flip the station, change the channel.” Likewise, she rejects tabloid culture’s “social disease” on “Nobody Knows Me,” denouncing both TV and magazines. These weren’t the kinds of statements you expected to hear from the biggest pop star in the world—especially one whose most recent hits, “Music” and “Don’t Tell Me,” were being played ad nauseam on pop radio and MTV just 24 months earlier. (Incidentally, “Hollywood” became Madonna’s first single in 20 years not to crack the Billboard Hot 100.)

That “American Life” and “Hollywood” were made with a half-Afghan Frenchman probably only further aggravated American patriots. Most of American Life was co-written and produced by Mirwais Ahmadzaï, who lent the album an often ugly, lo-fi demo quality and, following his superior work on 2000’s Music, made Madonna’s ever-evolving sound seem suddenly stunted. Subsequent remixes highlighted (and in some cases, revealed) the strength of the songs on American Life: the dull “Love Profusion” was reinvented into a vibrant piece of guitar-driven pop-rock by Ray Carroll, while the title track and “Hollywood” were turned into entirely different songs by Felix da Housecat and Stuart Price, respectively. But the original album’s ugliness has been vastly misunderstood and unappreciated; its stripped down, deconstructed aesthetic perfectly complements Madonna’s subversive messages. Beats abruptly stop and start. Guitars stutter. Synths drop in and out. The late Michel Colombier’s gorgeous string arrangements are sliced and diced. Madonna’s voice is left bare and unaffected—that is, when it’s not twisted and deformed until it sounds unrecognizable, even inhuman, like a Stepford wife on the fritz.

Madonna couldn’t possibly have intended to make a pop album. American Life is a folk album in the purest definition of the term—and it’s reflected right in the title. Though it owes plenty to the protest folk of the 1960s, the album’s anti-capitalist bent presented a dichotomy that’s been endemic in Madonna’s work since she co-opted “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and transformed it into an anthem for self-empowerment back in the ‘80s. “What I want is to work for it,” she sings nakedly on “Easy Ride,” “feel the blood and sweat on my fingertips.” It’s the complete antithesis of what it means to be a Material Girl. American Life is deeply personal (she writes candidly about her relationships with her husband, children and God), but only immediately relatable if you just so happen to be grappling with what it means to be one of the most famous people in the world. In other words, it’s profoundly truthful but its audience is limited by design.

On the hymnal folk ballad “X-Static Process,” Madonna sounds almost childlike when she begs: “Jesus Christ, won’t you look at me/I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.” Mortality is a key issue on American Life, an inevitable existential crisis for an artist who reached godlike levels of idolatry and fame and stayed there longer than anyone else in modern pop-culture history without self-destructing. Questions like “Why am I here?” and “What is the purpose of all of this?” were inescapable. Madonna’s vocals are reminiscent of her pre-fame days on the guitar-driven “I’m So Stupid,” a track with a decidedly punk-rock sensibility on which she reassesses the value of the material world: “Please don’t try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won’t protect me,” a sentiment she reprises on the wall of a bathroom stall in the “American Life” video.

Rap music is, in a sense, an inner-city adaptation of the folk tradition, serving the same purpose in the 1980s and today as the political folk of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell in the 1960s, but it doesn’t make Madonna’s use of the form any less gawky or grating, nor does it make its cheekiness seem any less out of place on a track as dour and robotic as “American Life.” It does, however, work on the inventive, electro-folk/rap hybrid “Mother and Father,” in which Madonna employs a schoolyard-style chant to recount the isolation she felt as a child in the wake of her mother’s death. It’s a demon she’s famously attempted to exorcise before (and more successfully), but one that continues to haunt her into midlife, and it illuminates the motivation behind her abiding drive to remain relevant in a youth-obsessed industry.

In hindsight, American Life isn’t the masterpiece that Erotica so quickly revealed itself to be. It’s frequently self-indulgent, misguided, unpleasant, difficult to listen to, silly yet somehow humorless, but it’s also consistent, uncompromising, and unapologetic. The album is a testament to the artist’s willingness to take risks and her refusal to stay inside her comfort zone. In the grand scheme of things, the album might rank as one of the weakest in Madonna’s extensive catalog, and the ones that followed have been as good, if not better, but American Life stands as the last time Madonna seemed to make music without the primary objective of scoring a hit. It’s interesting to imagine what Madonna’s career would look like today had American Life been a success: For better or worse, that pink leotard and Justin duet might never have existed.

Label: Maverick Release Date: April 22, 2003 Buy: Amazon

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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Review: Lambchop’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) Doesn’t Say Much

Modern trappings do little to obscure the fact that frontman Kurt Wagner feels more out of time than ever.

3

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Lambchop
Photo: Merge/Steve Gullick

After more than two decades of dealing in musical anachronisms, one might assume that Lambchop’s recent forays into electronics mean that frontman Kurt Wagner has finally gotten with the times. Defined by synths, vocoders, and drum machines, 2016’s FLOTUS and now This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) are daring departures from Wagner’s previous attempts to mine outmoded styles of the past for new truths. But these modern trappings are just misdirection, doing little to obscure the fact that he seems to be feeling more out of time than ever.

Perhaps inevitably, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) isn’t as sprawling or stylistically immersive as FLOTUS. When you put out an album whose lead single is an 18-minute synth dirge, it’s probably a good idea to take a bit of a step back for the follow-up. This album lacks the stitched-together quality of FLOTUS, that certain emphasis on atmosphere, texture, and the unexpected, rather than structure and melody, that makes that album alternately impenetrable and transcendent. This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is 20 minutes shorter, and far less formless. Even its more abstract passages, like the nearly five minutes of roaming piano and wispy horns that close the title track, feel more familiar within Lambchop’s pre-established paradigm of reimaging old genres—in this case, lounge jazz—and as new again than the alien soundscapes of FLOTUS did. The Wagner who spent much of the 2000s trying to turn himself into the world’s strangest, crustiest Vegas lounge singer is recognizable here as well. He’s just singing through a vocoder now.

No one could credibly accuse Lambchop of making conventional pop music, but new collaborator Matt McCaughan, who co-wrote over half the album with Wagner and is responsible for much of its electronic instrumentation, at least steers the band in a less abstract direction. The whining synth motif that pops up in the middle of “The December-ish You” is a sneakily good earworm, and if it weren’t for Wagner’s creaking old-young voice, “Everything for You” might sound like something you would hear at Sephora.

That’s not to say Wagner sounds anything but disaffected by modernity. Just as FLOTUS’s title falsely promised political musings in an election year, the fact that all but one of this album’s eight song titles are written in second person is just a canard—as if anyone wouldn’t notice that the only person Wagner is singing about is himself. A song title like “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” seems to promise a withering indictment of some behind-the-times character, but in reality, it’s just about Wagner sitting in a car and trying to reconcile his own place in the dizzying 2019 cultural landscape. Political references abound throughout This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), but they’re mostly just context-free phrases: “Be it so un-presidential,” “The news was fake, the drugs were real,” “Fell asleep during Vietnam,” and so on.

Rather than grapple with politics, Wagner sounds like he’d much rather revel in daily mundanities: “I’m in a Mexican restaurant bar/Watching surfing and it’s amazing,” he sings on “The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You.” In so doing, Wagner culminates a retreat into himself. Whereas Lambchop once boasted a grand, 12-plus-piece lineup, the band is now smaller and more insular than ever before. But Lambchop has always been whatever Wagner wants it to be, and if he wants “you” to mean “me” this time around, it simply does. “I see your reflection,” he sings at the very end of the gentle, acoustic-based closer “Flowers,” as Nashville legend Charlie McCoy’s honey-sweet harmonica billows behind him, “and I say hello.”

Label: Merge Release Date: March 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Meat Puppets Remain Resilient on the Mellow Dusty Notes

The album marks the band’s first reunion that feels truly consequential.

3.5

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Dusty Notes

The Meat Puppets have gone on hiatus and subsequently reunited at least four times now, rivaling any cash-grabbing classic-rock dinosaurs still out there in their ability to put boomer butts in arena seats. With the possible exception of guitarist Curt Kirkwood’s short-lived, Y2K-era solo project, it’s not as though the post-prime iterations of the Meat Puppets have been especially unwelcome. But their 15th studio album, Dusty Notes, marks the first such reunion that feels truly consequential, thanks to original drummer Derrick Bostrom returning to the fold for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!

Anyone who might want to trace a direct lineage between the new album and alt-rock classics like Meat Puppets II, and who hasn’t kept up with the band since they broke up for the first time, will of course notice the audible effects of the intervening 35 years: Curt and brother Cris’s low, calm voices; the slower tempos; the preponderance of acoustic guitars, often in place of fuzzy electric ones. One might also wonder if the band took the wrong lessons from Meat Puppets II’s acclaim. The idea of three former hardcore punks with acid-blasted brains playing a twisted psychedelic version of country and Americana music was novel and fascinating in 1984 and remained so 10 years later when Kurt Cobain invited them on stage to play during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Remove the acid and hardcore, however, and you just get middle-aged Arizonians playing straightforward country music, like Dusty Notes’s pointlessly faithful cover of the Don Gibson standard “Sea of Heartbreak.”

Fortunately, though an old-school country aesthetic defines the album—the banjo picking on “Nine Pins,” the sweet hillbilly harmonies on “Outflow”—Curt’s irrepressible songwriting quirks make the rest of Dusty Notes anything but formulaic. The post-Bostrom Meat Puppets have often veered much closer to modern alt-country than the hardcore of their early days, and Dusty Notes is no exception; in fact, it might be the mellowest of their albums to date.

With key assistance from keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, Curt turns what are at first blush prototypical country strummers into weird, melodic concoctions. Stabinsky’s contributions—circus organ on “Nine Pins,” Mariachi-like synths on the title track—often leap out immediately from the mix. But it’s Curt’s songwriting that makes those same songs stick in the brain, from the demented polka groove of “Warranty” to the sunny Tex-Mex hooks and characteristic stoner turns of phrase on the title track.

If anything is missing from Dusty Notes, it’s certainly not hard-rock dalliances. Besides, with both Stabinsky and second guitarist Elmo Kirkwood—Curt’s son—abetting the original trio, the album features a fuller, richer sonic character than any of the band’s early albums ever managed. Rather, there’s not enough of Curt’s guitar playing. His inimitable jangle riffs from the ‘80s and fuzzed-out, spacey heroics from later years are both in short supply, which does render Dusty Notes more conventional-sounding than most Meat Puppets albums.

It’s unlikely anyone predicted that a 2019 Meat Puppets album would feature a return to the blown-out arena-metal of 1989’s Monster, but that’s exactly what we get with “Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy,” complete with Dungeon Master-friendly verses like “Your chariot of protons/Slices through the gloom/Drawn by a pharaoh/Risen from the tomb.” It’s fun, but once the novelty and nostalgia wear off, it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as the songs here that don’t quite sound like anything the band has done before, like “Unfrozen Memory,” a dramatic slow-burner that melds distorted guitar with Stabinsky’s expert, baroque-style harpsichord, or “The Great Awakening,” on which silky, entrancing acoustic arpeggios drift into a tough, bluesy chorus and come back again like you’re falling in and out of a dream.

These particular songs exemplify what the Meat Puppets, at their best, have always been about. Not their singing or their playing or their lyrics, which were all often utterly incoherent even at the band’s peak. It’s their ability to evoke emotional states—some precious feeling half-remembered from childhood, or perhaps a really good acid trip—that has allowed their music to remain so resilient for almost 40 years.

Label: Megaforce Release Date: March 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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