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A week ago Madonna Louise Ciccone turned a significant age of three score and five. It was a birthday accompanied, as usual, by paparazzi pics, censorious oped pieces about those paparazzi pics – one of my favourites was a Sky News commentator of even less significance than their usual makeweights advising Madonna that there was a “limit” and she had exceeded it with her outfits – biting back responses to those opeds from fans of various shades, and, of course, a reminder that she was touring in October.

For five decades Madonna has somehow found her way to the centre of public discourse, whether or not her art always demanded it. In 2003, after two albums which justified the hype and attention – 1998’s Ray Of Light and 2000’s Music – she returned with the album American Life, and, well, it wasn’t in the same league.

None of this stopped her of course, and the album which followed, Confessions On A Dance Floor, recovered some ground. Enough? That’s a question for another day. For now, here’s how American Life looked back then.



American Life (Warner)

HAVING A GO AT fortysomething Madonna for not being as relevant to teens as, say, Britney Spears is pretty silly. Madonna's two previous albums, Ray Of Light and Music, were adventurous, grown-up albums that continued her career-long ability to shift ground just when stasis threatened. You don't try to sell that to the kids buying Holly Valance.

Similarly, mocking her for writing about her own life rather than sticking to lyrics about picking up boys in bars and busting poses on the dance floor is fatuous. She isn't 20 anymore; she has two kids and a bloke, and enough life experience to have acquired a few insights.

But where it is legitimate to criticise is in the emptiness of those insights and the failure of their delivery.

In the title track, after she lists her voluminous staff and asks, "Do you think I'm satisfied?", Madonna declares: "I'm just living out the American dream/And I just realised that nothing is what it seems." That's about as deep as it gets.

Nobody Knows Me has embarrassing lyrics such as, "I'm not that kind of guy/ Sometimes I feel shy/ I think I can fly/Closer to the sky”, and Mother And Father (which had the potential to be moving, given it's about growing up without a mother), gives us this bogus rhyme: "There was a time that I prayed to Jesus Christ/There was a time I had a mother/It was nice."

Musically, this is a mixed bag. While the album's producer, Mirwais Ahmadzai, is essentially a one-trick pony (stuttering beats under synth bass and cut-up sounds with surprising bursts of acoustics breaking things up), it's a good trick and he pulls it off a number of times, including on the groove-rich Hollywood.

He also gives an unexpected warmth to the love songs Nothing Fails and X-Static Process.

But too often the sounds are let down by Madonna's melodies (which are dull and predictable) her singing (which sometimes seems too remote given the personal nature of the lyrics) and her occasional rapping (which is stiff and unconvincing, like someone who has read about the craft but never heard it performed).

American Life is neither the worst thing Madonna has done nor a complete failure. But it has too many problems to be counted a success.

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