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Virtually all of the hatorade that's been spilled over Madonna's sharp American Life has actually succeeded in pointing out what's great about the album. A sonic palette limited to sliced-and-diced guitar and producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï's signature synth squelch; over-the-top pontifications from the singer about America's consumer culture and her search for something more meaningful; her thin, brittle singing voice and her self-conscious crack at rapping -- if these be the food of wack music, play on, sister, 'cause you're feeling more vital now than you have in years.

On 2000's Music, her maiden voyage with Mirwais after a spell hugged up with hippy-dippy William Orbit, Madonna stripped her increasingly fussy song settings down to the feral acid-bump she now utilizes exclusively, then dressed them back up with lots of giggly vocal processing and giggles, period. There's no such ornamentation on American Life; barring "Die Another Day," the orchestral-electroclash Bond theme from last year that's reprised here, Life is bracingly minimalist, full of rudimentary guitar figures fed through Mirwais' hard drive and underpinned with hard, clinical beats that groove in spite of themselves.

Which is a perfect reflection of Madonna's mood here: itchy, fed-up, hard-assed, exasperated. She mocks her own pampered existence, she mourns her dead mother, she sneers at the Hollywood that won't have her, she congratulates the complexity of Madonna, all in hysterically underwritten poetry that scans like ninth-grade diary drool. And that's the point; that's American life: a shiny, queasy simulacrum of real life in which sensation trumps sense, intent supersedes content, plastic conquers cash. Just like the rap in the title track, which, while technically atrocious, demonstrates ironclad American ambition like nothing since, oh, that three-CD set Prince put out a while ago, or the way Macy Gray dresses herself in the morning. Lots of chumps get the American buzz right; Madonna goes for the kill.

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Mikael Wood