American Life is a reminder of the Madonna that existed before she decided to stay young forever, and in a sense its failure sent her on the path she's still treading now, with increasing cringe-factor. Whereas Confessions on a Dance Floor was a reclamation of dance, the body and youth (and for which Madge seemed suitably refreshed), American Life was framed as a meditation on her life at a juncture between past and uncertain future, in the broader context of conservative America and celebrity culture.
"I prefer my South American dictators to be played by Madonna"
But this is where the intent of the album became somewhat unstuck. As its Patty Hearst-inspired, faux-photocopied cover art signalled, Madonna was at war against... something. What exactly it was was never specified. The fame-machine she helped build? Her own excess? American foreign policy? Madonna's strength has always been picking a range of different reference-points and then stitching them into something new, but not necessarily logical... and then defending any lack of coherence by labelling it art. But for an album with an apparent political intent, this was not convincing. While American Life's infamous rap took a stab at teasing out her own complicity in the world she was trying to critique, it didn't cut it. Instead the effect of a global superstar famed for her capitalist instinct and self-focus vaguely critiquing America, fame, and the superficial seemed, at the very least, a little limp.
But if you subtract the half-hearted politics, there remain some beautiful songs that provide a bittersweet reminder of what Madge has left behind on her way to the Candy Shop. The album's emotional core sits in a trio of songs, Nothing Fails, Intervention and Xstatic Process -- all melodic, delicate, vulnerable, and unfortunately probably also about Guy Ritchie. There's still the odd dud lyric (Madge's lyrical quality control being generally quite appalling), but as songs they engage you on a level other than 'superstar album.' I'm So Stupid and Nobody Knows Me are the most overt critiques of celebrity culture, but don't really work musically (albeit because of a presumably intentional abrasiveness). And while I think Mother Father is channeling some kind of therapeutic free association, it comes across as year 8-diary-confession detritus. While not always successful, the thought that's gone into the songs is certainly a revelation in the context of Hard Candy's laughable attempts at meaning (e.g. Devil Wouldn't Recognise You).
But perhaps the main reason American Life seems a bit hollow is actually to do with history. Because what happened next seemed to fully undermine the album's sentiment. After it failed commercially and (mostly) critically, Madonna, like the Terminator, returned to the forge. She re-built herself, re-grouped and came out with the dance album to beat all dance albums. While this was magical to watch, it nonetheless suggested that she maybe couldn't handle a life without the success she was apparently so ambivalent about. As impressive as Confessions ultimately was, as Madge continues to strut from stadium to stadium, more ghoulish by the day, I wonder what form she'd be in today if she'd stuck to the artistic direction mapped out (occasionally bodgily) by American Life?