La Ciccone does it again with the help of French sonic eccentric
2000’s music witnessed Madonna successfully, if belatedly, absorbing the sound of French house with the help of Gallic sound scientist Mirwais Ahmadzai. William Orbit also came along for the ride, still hanging on after the successful career resurrection of 1998’s Ray Of Light.
This time around, Orbit has been kicked to the kerb and Mirwais is her Madgesty’s sole collaborator, resulting in a more coherent album-more coherent, that is, because everything on American Life sounds unhinged even by today’s avant-mainstream standards set by The Neptunes, Dr Dre, Timbaland et al. Mirwais has been given carte blanche to create a fizzy, brightly-coloured poptopia for his mistress’ voice.
The title track opens with disorientating FX-swoops and bleeps that do to one’s hearing what American TV does to one’s vision, which is appropriate as the song casts a critical eye over an unjust USA which still values beauty, might and privilege above humanity. Madonna smartly summarises the paradoxical allure and repulsiveness of the American Dream, her declaration that “this type of modern life is not for me” clashing with the later admission that it’s the “best thing I’ve ever seen”. Hardly Noam Chomsky, but not bad for a million-selling celebrity goddess. “Hollywood” reduces the perplexity of the American Life to a single question?”How could it hurt you when it looks so good?”?and reintroduces the jangling West Coast psychedelia first evinced on 1999’s “Beautiful Stranger”. What seemed a throwaway movie tie-in at the time (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) actually presaged a stylistic shift to come, the results of which are scattered all over this album. Hardly a track goes by without some subtle form of six-string assistance, as on the Garbage-y “I’m So Stupid” and the quietly introspective “The Process”.
It wouldn’t be wildly inappropriate to identify American Life as an early 21st-century update of Love’s Forever Changes, effecting as it does a similarly eerie ambivalence with its fusion of mind-altering sonics and mellow acoustics.
This may be the truest Madonna LP since 1992’s Erotica. Her vocals are more relaxed when backed by Mirwais, and if she leans a little heavily on the Vocoder at times, at least the sub-operatics encouraged by Orbit are absent.
That voice comes into its own on the ballads. “Love Profusion” and “Nothing Fails” are beautiful low-key cyber-lullabies. She negotiates these winding melodies with enough grace to make you forget she’s singing about Guy Ritchie. Whatever one thinks of her extra-curricular activities, La Ciccone can never be accused of skimping on the pop music side of things. We may be left-idly dreaming of Felix Da Housecat or Aphex Twin team-ups, of ventures into electroclash or nu R&B, but then, if she did all we wished, she wouldn’t be Madonna-more or less in tune with, but ultimately distanced from, the mythical cutting edge.