Two decades after she emerged as the Material Girl, Madonna now decries all things shallow and superficial on American Life, her 10th studio album. When she rails against artifice, backed by the sputtering, robotic production of Mirwais, it's as confounding as her attempt to rap on the album's title cut. But as a woman who came to fame by cleverly exploiting the virgin/whore complex, Madonna continues to make her career out of embracing contradictions.
So while we all know that dogma has no place on the dance floor, Madonna gets away with it here, blending mild social commentary ("This world is not so kind") with lots of rump-shaking. And it works well, for half an album. With its stuttering rhythms and radiant programming, opener "American Life" sets a brusque tone, followed well by the brooding "Hollywood," which intermingles baby-doll vocals with pneumatic beats. That's followed by a trifecta of moody disco, from the Pentium pop of "Nobody Knows Me" to the blithe, breathy whir of "Love Profusion."
But the album is derailed midway by a trio of mawkish electro-acoustic ballads. As if Madonna's overemoting weren't enough, she saddles a ridiculous gospel choir onto the otherwise austere "Nothing Fails" and damns the buoyant "Mother and Father" with more goofy rapping. Madonna herself seems aware of her flaws: "I tried to be a mess/I tried to be the best," she sings early on, en route to succeeding on both counts.