By early 1989, the world had come to know Madonna as a dance-pop provocateur with quirky-sexy style. She was the biggest female celebrity on the planet, and yet for all her fame, few realized just how much pain and self-doubt this soon-to-be-divorced 30-year-old lapsed Catholic from Detroit was carting around. With “Like a Prayer,” that would all change.
Recorded amid the dissolution of her marriage to actor Sean Penn, “Like a Prayer” was Madonna’s most introspective and eclectic album to date. Unlike the three that came before, it blended classic psychedelic rock with then-current synth-pop sounds. And now, a quarter-century after its March 21, 1989 release, it doesn’t sound a bit dated. Lyrically, it’s about growing up, moving on from bad romance, and getting right with God and family. At least two of the songs center on the death of Madonna’s mother, a childhood trauma that had a strong part in making the singer who she is.
Before “Like a Prayer” was even released, Madonna made it clear this wouldn’t be just another album. Three weeks before the release, she debuted the video for the title track, the first of five top 20 Hot 100 singles spawned from the album. Featuring depictions of murder, interracial love, and cross burnings, the clip juxtaposed notions of religious and sexual ecstasy, leaving some folks puzzled and just about everyone talking. Catholics denounced her; Pepsi dropped ads featuring her (and ended plans to sponsor her tour). Fans, of course, ate it up.
Controversy aside, “Like a Prayer” is among Madonna’s finest moments, and over the next 10 tracks, its namesake album never lets up. It’s funky, poignant, and even a little kooky. And while Madonna is the quintessential singles artist, this chart-topping LP stands as one of her most fully realized collection of songs. Read on for our classic track-by-track review.
“Like a Prayer”
What a way to start an album. First, distorted guitars and a heavy thud. From there, a pop-gospel workout that’s as enigmatic as it is invigorating. It’s “Thriller” meets Catholic mysticism, and “Like A Prayer” works just as well without its vivid video. No wonder it shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 a month after its release.
The party moves from the church to Madonna’s posh high-rise, where she looks at her jewels and satin sheets and decides she’d rather have a man who’s in touch with his feelings. It’s her brassy, funky version of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and it climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100.
This collab between Madonna and Prince is the ‘80s-pop equivalent of Wonder Woman teaming up with Batman. Given the star power, the track feels a touch slight, and as Prince’s signature scratchy disco guitar breaks through Madonna’s synths, the divergent musical sensibilities make like the lovers in the lyrics—they don’t quite connect.
“Till Death Do Us Part”
As her tumultuous marriage to actor Sean Penn comes to an end, Madonna reflects on the well-publicized fights—“He starts to scream / the vases fly”—and emotional distance that doomed the couple. The skittering guitar or keyboard part creates a frazzled feel that contrasts nicely with Madonna’s assured vocals.
“Promise to Try”
Seemingly a straightforward song about the death of Madonna’s mother, this piano ballad is actually rather complex. She’s singing to her devastated five-year-old self, and in addition to offering some advice for coping—“Don’t you forget her face”—she asks for forgiveness. She knows she’s made mistakes, and she fears she’s let her mother and herself down.
A welcome reprieve after “Promise to Try,” the album’s third single is a frolicking pop confection about true love. The only conceivable reason this thing didn’t quite make it to No. 1: America likes its Madonna a little edgier.
This playful psych-pop fantasia could have come from Prince’s “Around the World In a Day” album, though the Purple One had nothing to do with it. Madonna wrote and produced it with Patrick Leonard, whose young daughter was the inspiration. Listening back, it’s obvious Madonna was destined for motherhood.
A companion of sorts to “Promise to Try,” this song about Madonna’s strained relationship with her father leaves little to the imagination. As a child, she felt betrayed by his decision to remarry, and in a 1989 sit-down with Interview magazine, she traced her rebellious, independent spirit back to the sinking feeling her lone surviving parent had been “taken away” by her stepmother. Though it’s hardly a feel-good track, it resonated with listeners and reached No. 20.
“Keep It Together”
As the preceding eight tracks attest, Madonna had some familial issues. But on this mid-tempo synth-funk tune, she offers an olive branch to her estranged father and siblings, insisting that blood “is thicker than any circumstance.” A No. 8 hit in March 1990, “Keep It Together” is a tense groover.
This Latin-flavored guitar ballad is either about AIDS or gang violence, and the ambiguity—a topic of debate among fans to this day—shows just how far Madonna had come since “Everybody” and “Borderline.”
“Act of Contrition”
Having spent the previous 10 tracks digging into some pretty deep emotions, Madonna takes a minute to decompress. Amid wailing guitars and backwards tape loops, she empties the contents of her head, and in the hilarious coda, she’s not sure if she’s confessing her sins and reserving a place in heaven or booking a room at a trendy hotel. “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?” she asks, ending the record in true Madonna fashion, with a big old wink.
Source: Billboard, 3/20/2014 by Kenneth Partridge