Madonna’s fourth studio album was released in 1989, a turning point for her. After four stormy years, she had split from husband Sean Penn. Since her previous album, True Blue, dedicated to ‘the coolest guy in the universe’, Madonna had completed a triumphant world tour; appeared in two best-forgotten movies; and released a remix album.
Like A Prayer took shape in 1988, the same year Madonna made her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s Speed The Plow. Playing against type as a mousy secretary, Madonna reverted to her natural brunette. This may sound like an incidental detail, but for a celebrity as image-conscious as Madonna, it signified a desire to be taken more seriously, a literal return to her roots.
The front cover shows Madonna’s exposed torso, in unbuttoned jeans, and the inner sleeve was originally scented with patchouli oil; while the back includes a smaller photo of the singer in a low-cut black slip, radiantly smiling, her hands joined in prayer.
Once again, Madonna chose to collaborate with songwriter and producer Patrick Leonard, but the resemblance to True Blue ends there. If True Blue was a ‘love letter to Sean Penn’, Like A Prayer charts Madonna’s subtle metamorphosis during the final months of her marriage. It was to be her most personal album to date, exploring past memories, love and loss.
A broken, frantic guitar riff opens the eponymous song, ‘Like A Prayer’ – followed by a burst of harmony from a gospel choir. This is an epic production, and though Madonna’s vocal is delicate, she holds her own. The first line, ‘Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone’, is both poignant and ethereal – and she adds, ‘I hear you call my name, and it feels like home.’
Musing on opposing themes of sexuality and religion, Madonna implies that they are, in fact, indelibly connected. It is a passionate song, acknowledging isolation yet taking the listener on an emotional journey. The video marked Madonna’s last collaboration with director Mary Lambert, and caused an outcry by depicting Madonna kissing a black priest. ‘Like A Prayer’ is one of her most enduring hits, and was memorably revived at the Live 8 concert in 2005.
The exuberant mood is heightened for ‘Express Yourself’, where Madonna asks, ‘Do you believe in love?’ Her question is directed at other women, but the message is one of inclusion. Musically, it’s a tribute to sixties soul, the music she grew up with in Detroit. Her voice is full-bodied and gutsy, the lyrics confident and liberated – ‘You deserve the best in life, so if the time isn’t right then move on/Second-best is never enough, you’ll be much better baby on your own.’
The video used a more club-friendly remix by DJ Shep Pettibone, and was inspired by the 1927 movie, Metropolis. Directed by David Fincher, it reworks Fritz Lang’s futuristic vision and shows a blonde, lingerie-clad Madonna with a young lover. The male is always the sex object in Madonna’s work, not the other way round – and she is in control. In one scene she is chained to a bed, and fetishism would become a major feature of her performances in years to come.
‘Love Song’ is Madonna’s first major duet, with that other iconic star, Prince. They had planned an entire musical together, an intriguing prospect – but this was the only song released. Each part was recorded separately, but their pairing is a strikingly intimate affair. The sound is distinctly Prince’s, perhaps inevitably because of the two, he is the consummate musician. But Madonna’s presence is far stronger than most of his female collaborators, and the lyrics – detailing a pained dialogue between lovers – seem uniquely hers. Madonna’s emotional honesty, and her willingness to experiment, both pay off here.
Continuing with the theme of dysfunctional relationships, ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ reveals the open wound of Madonna’s impending divorce. It is a bitter pill to swallow, coated in a sweet melody of clockwork precision. ‘Promise To Try’ is a stripped-down ballad, with just piano and strings accompanying Madonna’s searing vocal. She has rarely been more vulnerable, in a tribute to her mother (who died of cancer when Madonna was just five.) The elder Madonna haunts this album, dedicated to the woman ‘who taught me how to pray’.
‘Cherish’ harks to the romantic idealism of True Blue, and it seems likely to have been one of the earliest recordings on Like A Prayer. If at times it seems almost naïve, it still brings an infectious energy. Madonna reflects, ‘I was never satisfied with casual encounters/ I can’t hide the need for two hearts that bleed/ With burning love, that’s the way it’s got to be.’
The joyful mood prevails in ‘Dear Jessie’, a gentle lullaby for co-producer Patrick Leonard’s young daughter. It is playful and whimsical, and mostly avoids slipping into twee cliché. A strings arrangement marks an artful segue into the much darker ‘Oh Father’, which like ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, is a meditation on Madonna’s troubled relationships with the men in her life – including, perhaps, her own father, her ex-husband, and God. The video shows an older Madonna looking back on herself as a little girl, trying desperately to win her father’s approval.
Along with ‘Express Yourself’, ‘Keep It Together’ is the major dancefloor track on Like A Prayer. Written with Steve Bray, who had known Madonna since her college days and also co-wrote ‘Into The Groove’, it recalls seventies funk – true to the past influences that permeate this album. ‘Keep It Together’ is about family, and the lyrics are more thoughtful than might be expected. ‘When I get lonely and I need to be/Loved for who I am, not what they want to see,’ Madonna sings, ‘Brothers and sisters, they’ve always been there for me…’
‘Spanish Eyes’ is another epic ballad, and a return to the Latino style (‘La Isla Bonita’ and ‘Who’s That Girl?’ were both huge hits worldwide.) This time, however, her tone is downbeat, her subject the ghetto. Brutal reality leads Madonna to question her long-held beliefs – ‘What kind of life is this, if God exists?’ A year previously, Sean Penn had played a cop in Colors, a film about the Los Angeles gang wars. With ‘Spanish Eyes’, Madonna brought her own perspective to the recurring topic of male violence.
Finally, ‘Act Of Contrition’ is not really a song, but a coda – while the guitars and choir of ‘Like A Prayer’ is played backwards, Madonna half-sings, half-chants, the Roman Catholic confessional prayer. Then she breaks into speech, insisting, ‘I reserve – I have a reservation…’ and with each line, the penitent child fades, replaced by an angry, impatient woman who finally screams out her rage. It is funny, mischievous and jarring, and seems to imply that Madonna’s journey is far from over.
Though Like A Prayer was almost universally acclaimed, it was overlooked at the 1990 Grammy awards ceremony. This seemed to indicate that Madonna was still too ‘pop’, and perhaps too controversial, to be fully embraced by the musical establishment. Nonetheless, the album yielded a further string of hits and in many ways, marked a pinnacle in her career.
Nearly twenty years on, it’s apparent that Like A Prayer is not quite the perfect album – though each of the compositions, and Madonna’s performances are exquisite, the production is a little thin in places and it doesn’t have the innovative, defining sound of True Blue. But perfection is only relative, and its place in art is debatable. Like A Prayer marked Madonna’s first consistently brilliant album, in which the non-singles are just as strong as the commercial releases. It was a high watermark in eighties music, and still deserves to be rated as a classic and a pop masterpiece.