review by Michael McCarthy
Today’s #albumoftheday is Madonna’s criminally under-rated 2003 album American Life. Depending on when you ask me, it may be my favorite or second favorite Madonna album. It’s impossible to choose between American Life and Like A Virgin.
I’m a big fan of electronic pop music, which is probably why I love American Life so much. It’s very much an electro-pop experiment. It wasn’t Madonna’s first voyage into electronic music territory, which she’d previously done with Ray of Light and Music, but it’s arguably the most electro of those three albums. And I would argue that it’s the best of the three, although I love the other two very much as well.
The thing about American Life is that it came out in 2003 so it was late to the electronic music party. Had it come out in 1998 or a bit earlier, it would’ve been considered brilliant like Bjork’s Homogenic, Olive’s Extra Virgin or Garbage’s Version 2.0. But when American Life dropped in 2003, I think people were generally getting tired of that sound. In some ways, I think American Life would’ve done better if it was released today in 2024 than in 2003. Its quirky, punch bass-heavy vibes would fit in nicely on the radio between Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez.
More than any other Madonna album, American Life is something of a minimalist adventure. Whereas some electronic music songs by other artists are produced using dozens of tracks with layers and layers of sound, Madonna and her producers took a different approach on American Life, giving the beats and sporadic guitars plenty of breathing room. Sometimes in a song what’s not there is almost as important as what is there and these songs are prime examples of that. “American Life” and “Hollywood,” two of the album’s singles, don’t shove blaring synths or excessive bass down your throat. The songs pack a nice punch but not one that is going to put your subwoofer at risk. And you can hear each beat and guitar note so clearly. None of the sounds drown each other out, they merely compliment each other as they roll into your brain and get you hooked.
Another reason to love American Life is because of its lyrics, which are some of Madonna’s deepest lyrics to date. On “Nothing Fails,” one of the record’s shiniest gems, she sings, “I’m not religious, but I feel so moved, makes me wanna pray, pray you’ll always be here, I’m not religious, but I feel such love, makes me wanna pray.” They’re fairly simple lyrics but they’re also about the least pretentious words Madonna has ever sung. You feel like you’re hearing from Madonna the person on this one, not Madonna the goddess of pop. To that end, the whole album feels like a very honest confessional. On “Nobody Knows Me,” she sings that nobody knows her like you and it’s fitting because you feel like you’ve gotten to know the real Madonna after you finish listening to this record.
I also have to mention that this album came out just after I’d moved to California in early 2003. And it was the first CD that I bought after moving out there. And perhaps because the album included a song called “Hollywood,” it quickly became the soundtrack to my first year of life in Cali. I listened to this one almost constantly my first summer in the LA. suburb of Glendale. I was always blasting it. The apartment building I lived in was a very well-built 1920s hotel initially and for whatever reasons, you could never hear anything that was going on in anyone else’s apartment unless you were in the hallway. So you could play really loud music even late at night and nobody would notice. You could also dance in your apartment at night without disturbing whoever lived below you so I’d often be doing a mix of aerobic exercises and dance moves at 2AM after drinking a bottle of wine while listening to this masterpiece. Great memories.
Perhaps I wouldn’t love American Life quite so much if it didn’t make me feel nostalgic for one of the best years of my life. It’s impossible to say. But I do know that I would still be considering it one of her best works regardless. Of course, I realize that there will be people who’ll read this review that think it’s the worst album she ever made but I think on some level knowing that a lot of her fans hate it makes me like it even more somehow.