While American Life certainly wasn't the kiss of death for Madonna, her ninth studio album did end one of the winningest streaks in the history of pop. Although the LP—which was released 15 years ago on April 21, 2003—did debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, it became the lowest-selling studio LP of her career up to that point. And the reviews were mixed at best.
The title-track lead single was one of Madonna’s first bona-fide flops, certainly by her standards. It barely cracked the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 37. Even worse, it was the object of derision for her stiff, silly rap in the second half where she rhymes “latte” with “shoté” and “MINI Cooper” with “super-duper” and “trooper.” No one wants to hear Madonna rap about her lawyer, manager, agent, chef, nannies, assistant, driver, jet, trainer, butler, bodyguards, gardener and stylist. Not then, and not now. The failure of “American Life” made it hard for the album to recover with subsequent singles “Hollywood,” “Nothing Fails” and “Love Profusion” missing the Hot 100.
But revisiting American Life 15 years later, it deserves more love than it has gotten -- it's perhaps the most underappreciated album of Madonna’s catalog. Listening to it now, it certainly bests Rebel Heart and MDNA, and from a lyrical standpoint, it probably beats 2008’s Hard Candy and maybe even 2005’s beloved Confessions on a Dance Floor. In fact, with its confessional tone and commentary on the American Dream in the President George W. Bush era, American Life is easily one of Madonna’s better lyrical outings.
The strong lyrical perspective is complemented by the cohesive musical vision. Madonna worked with one producer, French electronic savant Mirwais Ahmadzaï, for the entire album—although there was additional production by Mark “Spike” Spent on “I’m So Stupid” and “Nothing Fails”—and they expanded on the folktronica experimentation they did on 2000’s Music. Indeed, if there is one Music song that served as the biggest touchstone for American Life, it's “Don’t Tell Me,” with its twangy trip-hop. Madonna and Mirwais—who are back in the studio working on new music together in 2018—also co-wrote all but three of 11 songs together. With such a tight team, not one of the songs feels out of place (although the dramatic “Die Another Day” from the James Bond film of the same name feels like it should have been sequenced earlier in the record).
In retrospect, American Life—the last truly ambitious album that Madonna has made—also marked the end of a very important phase of her career. Having achieved new artistic depth with 1998’s Ray of Light and continued that creative spirit with Music, she was very much still in risk-taking mode on American Life. You might say those three albums—starting from an electronica base but veering in different directions—amounted to her Berlin Trilogy. On an aesthetic level, this period was Madonna at her Bowie-est.
“Love Profusion,” “Nobody Knows Me” and “Nothing Fails” make for a thrilling three-song sequence that displays varied moods and styles. While glowing with its sweet strumminess, “Love Profusion” faces some troubling uncertainties: “There are too many questions/There is not one solution/There is no resurrection/There is so much confusion.” The zig-zagging “Nobody Knows Me” packs a rock thump and a sense of disillusionment: “This world is not so kind/People trap your mind/It’s so hard to find/Someone to admire.” And “Nothing Fails”—the glorious, gospel-infused centerpiece of American Life—is nothing short of a latter-day “Like a Prayer.”
Elsewhere, “X-Static Process”—co-written by Stuart Price, who Madonna would go on to work with for much of Confessions on a Dance Floor—is a beautiful ballad rich in harmony and emotional directness. You can almost hear echoes of R.E.M. on that and the previous track, “Intervention.” Meanwhile, the solemn, string-laden “Easy Ride” may be one of the best album closers of Madonna’s career. The lyric nods to her notorious work ethic: “I want the good life/But I don’t want an easy ride/What I want is to work for it/Feel the blood and sweat on my fingertips/That’s what I want for me.”
American Life—which still sounds very modern and, in some ways, seems eerily prescient of Trump-era despair—feels more like the Madonna album for now than her recent efforts. It’s not a perfect album—“I’m So Stupid” is still irritating—but it’s the sound of Madonna challenging herself, and us.