Madonna's malleable, endlessly calculated persona has helped her overcome a formidable array of missteps during her remarkable 20-year career, from silly pop-cultural indulgences like the Sex book to virtually every film role she's ever accepted. After all, she's recovered from so much that no ill-conceived notion could ever be deemed career-ending, and the material that works (Ray Of Light, et al) ends up seeming even better than it is by comparison. That may help explain why 2001's Music was so widely and wildly overrated, but even modest expectations can't salvage the clunky, ponderous American Life, which fares only slightly better than "Hanky Panky" and Swept Away on her list of offenses. The perfunctory controversy surrounding the video to American Life's title track may have generated awareness of the album's existence, but the song itself is jittery, tuneless, and shallow to the point of self-parody: If "Weird Al" Yankovic were inclined to do a gloves-off Madonna parody, he might write a line like the single's "I do yoga and Pilates / and the room is full of hotties / so I'm checking out the bodies / and you know I'm satisfied." Oh, and that line is rapped. Good idea. Elsewhere on American Life, Madonna engages in some memorable self-flagellation and spiritual yearning, but she almost never digs below the surface. It doesn't help that just about every time one of her songs is actually catchy ("Hollywood") or emotionally resonant ("Nothing Fails"), she's undercut by Mirwais Ahmadzaï's busy production–which at various points includes chirping birds, a choir, and a Vocoder–or a ridiculous lyrical head-slapper. ("There was a time that I prayed to Jesus Christ / There was a time I had a mother, it was nice.") Late in the proceedings, she even tacks on "Die Another Day," her pneumatic, hook-deficient single from the James Bond movie of the same name. Madonna has never been afraid to try new things, but that doesn't usually involve providing one-stop shopping for all of her most plodding and joyless material.
More from The A.V. Club