Throughout the 1990s, Madonna changed her sound almost as often as she altered her hair color. From the dark house beats of Erotica to the lush R&B of Bedtime Stories and the electro-pop of Ray of Light, Madonna switched up her style with both restlessness and ease. At the start of her third decade in the business, Madonna took her foray into electronic music one step further by enlisting the talents of newcomer Mirwais for 2000’s Music. Having made a career out of taking us by surprise, she curiously chose to shack up with the French producer a second time for her 10th studio album, American Life. But would Mirwais have enough tricks up his sleeve for a sophomore romp with the queen of reinvention?
The answer is yes…and no. Back are the oscillating filters, clunky beats, stuttering guitars and irksome autotuned vocals, but while Music was all over the place musically, American Life is more consistent, and this time M+M have perfected the experimental guitar/synth sound they christened with “Don’t Tell Me.” Much like Music’s aptly-titled “Impressive Instant,” “Nobody Knows Me” is the album’s most immediately gratifying tune. The track has a patently retro quality (think Stacy Q on acid) that bridges the synth-happy gap between “Material Girl” and “Music.” While Madonna’s attempt at rapping on the title track is cheeky at best (the song also finds Mirwais regurgitating his signature beats and grinding synth sounds), her digitally-spliced rhymes on “Mother & Father” are starling and inventive.
The album’s best tunes, though, mostly abandon the techno-rap ether and dive headlong into folk-rock territory. With several songs stacking layers of sophisticated vocal harmonies on top of sparse acoustic guitars, the influence of Joni Mitchell, an early Madonna favorite, seems to be finally floating to the surface. If it’s true that rock stars make their worst music when they’re happy, then Madonna must be faking it. She may appear to be head-over-heels in love with someone (her husband and/or son on “Love Profusion” and “Intervention,” respectively) or something (God on the Gospel-flavored “Nothing Fails”), but it seems like Madonna’s in the throes of a full-fledged midlife crisis. She rejects capitalism and fame on songs like “Hollywood,” which has a distinctly sunny vibe a la Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun,” while the resplendent “X-Static Process” finds an almost childlike Madonna begging: “Jesus Christ, won’t you look at me/I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.”
Where she used to rage against the machine in deeds (or misdeeds), Madonna now bites back more directly with her lyrics. Her vocals hark back to songs like “Burning Up” on the guitar-driven “I’m So Stupid,” a track with a decidedly punk-rock sensibility: “Please don’t try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won’t protect me.” After years of flip-flopping between sub-genres and finally finding a comfortable niche in electronica, then teasing us with her electric guitar-wielding rock goddess persona during 2001’s Drowned World Tour, and now showing promise as a folk-rock songstress, the only thing left for Madonna to do is plug in and make a full-blown rock album.