A friend and I recently got in a fight about Madonna’s latest album, American Life. He, claiming to be her #1 fan, bought the album on April 22, the day it hit store shelves, and proceeded to do nothing but rave about it until I could get my own. So, five whole days later, I was psyched when I got it-and all I can say is that she’s done better, and this doesn’t shed a “Ray of Light” for her career’s future.

While reading reviews of the album, I figured that others were just tearing her apart, still riding the wave of nit-picking for her movie bomb, “Swept Away” (which really didn’t seem like that bad of a movie, despite the fact that there were only six other people in the theater on opening night). So maybe Madonna’s not the best actress in the world, but she IS the Queen of Pop, so there’s no excuse. She’s re-invented herself at least half a dozen times, and her latest incarnation (during which she produced 1998’s “Ray of Light” and 2000’s “Music”) as the yoga-obsessed Material Mom showed such maturity and perfection with the layered harmonies that her fans could only hope for more.

Her fans, with the exception of that friend of mine who thinks I can’t criticize her because I claim to be a fan, now wonder just what she thinks she’s doing. Her message in the album, that American society is too materialistic and worldly, becomes garbled with the little annoyances that occur in at least half of the album.

Just when you think a song is finally not going to have some ridiculous touch that inevitably degrades the song, Madonna’s new favorite toy-a monkey wrench-hits you in the forehead.

For example, the title track is a great song with a catchy beat, in which Madonna decided to try her hand at being a white rapper. She only proves that she’s no Eminem. Her rap, which is a tribute to everyone on her payroll as well as almost every form of transportation she owns (she mentioned the jet, but not her bike) comes off as silly and weak. The line “I drive my Mini Cooper/ And I’m feeling super-duper” almost reminds me of a Barney nightmare. And if she’s “just realized that nothing is what it seems,” well, at the age of 44, don’t you think it’s a bit late?

“Hollywood,” is a great pop song and looks to become the next single off the album. I only hope radio stations cut out the “Push the button / Don’t push the button/ Trip the station/ Change the channel” that repeats three times at the end, slowing down each time so that Madonna inevitably sounds like Mr. T with a bad cold. Otherwise, it’s a catchy song that would have been perfect.

When I first heard “Love Profusion,” I was sure my CD was skipping, and then as if the intentional skipping wasn’t enough, the repetitive lyrics certainly got “under my skin” -in fact, Madonna sings “I’ve got you under my skin” 20 times in the 3 1/2 minute song, I even counted because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Finally, with the fifth track, Madonna succeeds in not annoying me. With a background that sounds like it was done on a simple keyboard from Radio Shack with some enhancements, like a good bass beat and well-timed lyrics sung with a vocoder (think: Cher) but good nevertheless, “Nobody Knows Me” is one of the best songs on the album.

The next song is reminiscent of “Like a Prayer” in the way the music builds powerfully until near the end, with a huge choral climax with a gospel flair. This song, “Nothing Fails,” which also succeeds in not being an annoyance, makes the listener pray that the rest of the album only gets better. If it did get better from here, the first four songs might even be forgivable.

While the title of “X-Static Process” might allude to some jumpy techno tune, it’s the exact opposite. With a simple guitar, Madonna sings a slow duet with herself, and it’s as calming as a song by Enya. “Nobody knows me” should move over, I found a new favorite on the album!

It’s back to techno with an upbeat song about Madonna’s sad childhood, with “Mother and Father,” and it’s a throwback to her 80’s incarnation, only with a slightly modern twist. Then, when you’re no longer expecting it, the song just ditches all hope for any forgiveness of the musical weaknesses that pockmark the album, and dives into another ridiculous rap to which you could play hopscotch.

This song is followed by one of the best Bond themes to date (unless you listen to Elton John, who said it was the worst ever), “Die Another Day,” and it’s a shame that not all the songs on the album were as good as this one. Yes, it even comes with the menacing laugh heard in the music video!

At the end of the album, I called that friend to tell him I didn’t really like it, and that’s when we got in the argument. I did promise him I wouldn’t bash the Queen of Pop too much, and I must admit that after a couple of days, the album is growing on me . Over all, it’s not her best, but it’s not her worst either.

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