"American Life" (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
When Madonna says, in effect, that she doesn't believe in material girls in the title track of this ambitious new collection, the declaration doesn't hit with the emotional or artistic impact of John Lennon's "I don't believe in Beatles" from his first solo album three decades ago. But it does reflect much of the same deeply felt superstar self-inventory.
Scores of pop artists, including Sinead O'Connor and Alanis Morissette, have followed Lennon's lead in pointing out the dangers of false values and goals, though most spoke in the relentlessly stark tone of Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" album.
What's different about Madonna's album (which arrives in stores Tuesday) is that she sometimes frames her musings in bright electronic and dance-music textures that would fit on a radio playlist with the next party-starter from Pink. She even sings some of the songs (notably "I'm Stupid") in a distinctly adolescent tone, as if to separate herself from the "blond ambition" of the past.
Listeners used to hearing messages in more somber settings may find the bouncy beats working against the seriousness of Madonna's themes. (It also doesn't help her credibility to poke at Hollywood shallowness when her film career seems to be a shambles.)
For those listeners, Madonna, whose vocals are more confident and convincing than ever, is probably more affecting on "American Life" when she and co-producer Mirwais Ahmadzai serve up the songs (including "Love Profusion" and "X-Static Process") with more intimate and confessional-toned arrangements.
Madonna has delayed the video for the song "American Life" to make sure none of the imagery offends anyone during the Iraq war, but there is nothing about the war or President Bush in the song. Rather, it is a tale of Madonna's own early, misguided values:
Do I have to change my name?
Will it get me far?
Should I lose some weight?
Am I gonna be a star?"
While more catchy than profound, the song, like the album, strikes you as the honest feelings of a woman who, since the birth of her daughter in 1996 and her marriage to director Guy Ritchie in 2000, has gone through such a personal and spiritual awakening that she sometimes has trouble putting it all into perspective. You sense that struggle in "Nothing Fails," when she sings, "I'm not religious / But I feel so moved / Makes me want to pray."
-- Robert Hilburn
Heartache without the sucrose
"Day I Forgot" (Columbia)
Pete Yorn is tangled up in blue, forever singing to himself about how it all went so wrong. His weapons are an acoustic guitar and a weary voice, but he's less like Dylan than a bridge between Paul Westerberg and Jimmy Webb, both idiosyncratic songwriters with an unnatural flair for melody and inevitable heartache.
Yorn makes pure pop minus the sugar.
That is already enough to make him more interesting than such amiable young singer-songwriter types as John Mayer. Yorn is no wise guy. Nothing is ever certain in his mind. So if his romantic observations are not always profound, they are still deeply felt. The edge in his voice is universal.
His second album continues in the tradition of the tightly crafted folk-pop of his fine 2001 debut, "Music for the Morning After." He doesn't quite reach the same songwriting peaks this time, but does stray into worthy moments of experimentation. .
Yorn comes closest to the sound of his first album with "Come Back Home" and "Crystal Village," keeping things direct and focused on the natural beauty of his songs. Occasional fussy production sometimes dulls that impact, but fans know that another hook-filled lament of hope and regret is never far away.
-- Steve Appleford
Ginuwine fails to graduate
"The Senior" (Epic)
R&B sex symbol Ginuwine is photographed as four yearbook-style characters in the booklet for "The Senior," and the hip-hop soul man's fourth collection offers a correspondingly split take on romance.
The presentation features the usual between-track skits and guest artists, along with a rare (if not particularly reassuring) opening endorsement by thuggish boxer Mike Tyson.
Hit-making producer Timbaland is absent from Ginuwine's work for the first time since 1996's "The Bachelor," which partly explains why there's little sonic innovation to distract from the rampant cliches.
Yet such producers as Troy Oliver and Scott Storch make an impression with, respectively, the smitten-playa come-on "Big Plans" and the mid-tempo soul lament "Locked Down," which employ complementary variations on a fetching blend of flute-y '70s funk-pop, stark R&B rhythms and electro-poppish beats
Ginuwine spreads himself too thin across a far-too-often arid landscape of love. He alternately warns off gold diggers ("Chedda Brings"), pledges treacly devotion ("Love You More"), revels in hard-core thrills ("Sex") and sappily celebrates fatherhood ("Our First Born").
Without pushing himself too hard, Ginuwine convincingly shows you where he stands in any given tune.