Ever since Madonna's bellybutton first undulated its way into mass consciousness, her fame has been more a matter of image than artistry. Never mind whether there was any depth or resonance behind it; for many of her fans, the image alone — Madonna as wily, wanton boy toy, gleefully manipulating the material world — was resonant enough. For others, it was just an act, a coolly calculated pop ploy designed to sell records.
With Like a Prayer, Madonna doesn't just ask to be taken seriously, she insists on it. Daring in its lyrics, ambitious in its sonics, this is far and away the most self-consciously serious album she's made. There are no punches pulled, anywhere; Madonna is brutally frank about the dissolution of her marriage ("Till Death Do Us Part"), her ambivalence toward her father ("Oh Father") and even her feelings of loss about her mother ("Promise to Try"). Yet as intensely personal as these songs are, the underlying themes are universal enough to move almost any listener. Likewise, the music, though clearly a step beyond the pop confections that earned the singer her place on the charts, remains as accessible as ever.
Don't expect to be won over instantly, though, for Like a Prayer is more interested in exorcising demons than entertaining fans. The album is in large part about growing up and dealing with such ghosts from the past as parents, religion and the promises of love. At times, the album can be heartbreaking in its honesty — read through the lyrics to "Till Death Do Us Part," and you'll feel guilty for ever having glanced at a tabloid with a Madonna & Sean Wedding Shocker headline.
This is serious stuff, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the title tune. Opening with a sudden blast of stun-gun guitar, "Like a Prayer" seems at first like a struggle between the sacred and the profane as Madonna's voice is alternately driven by a jangling, bass-heavy funk riff and framed by an angelic aura of backing voices. Madonna stokes the spiritual fires with a potent, high-gloss groove that eventually surrenders to gospel abandon.
The tracks that Madonna coproduced with Patrick Leonard — which include "Like a Prayer" — are stunning in their breadth and achievement. "Cherish," which manages a nod to the Association song of the same title, makes savvy retro-rock references, and "Dear Jessie" boasts kaleidoscopic Sgt. Pepper-isms. When Stephen Bray replaces Leonard as coproducer, even an unabashed groove tune like "Express Yourself" seems smart and sassy, right down to Madonna's soul-style testimony on the intro: "Come on, girls, do you believe in love?"
Believing in love doesn't seem as easy for Madonna as it once did, though. "Till Death Do Us Part" takes its wedding-vow title almost mockingly, as the singer contemplates all the ways her marriage seems to be killing her. "The bruises, they will fade away/You hit so hard with the things you say," goes one verse, and it's hard not to be shocked. But the saddest thing about the song isn't the abuse endured by Madonna (for this hardly seems a fictional "I"); it's her helplessness in the face of her husband's self-loathing: "You're not in love with someone else/You don't even love yourself/Still I wish you'd ask me not to go."
But difficult love seems a familiar refrain in this collection of songs. "Oh Father" mirrors many of the horrors hinted at by "Till Death Do Us Part" (which provides plenty of material for armchair psychiatrists), and despite the song's lush string arrangement, there's still a disturbing amount of ache in lines like "You can't hurt me now/I got away from you, I never thought I would." Not that it's all bad love and childhood trauma. "Promise to Try," for instance, is about gathering a certain strength from feelings of loss and abandonment, as Madonna tries to live up to the memories she holds so dear.
The worst that can be said of the album's obviously confessional numbers is that they engender such powerful emotions that an admirable pop song like "Keep It Together" seems almost trivial by comparison (when in fact it's a rather impressive invocation of the importance of family). Fortunately, Madonna maintains an impressive sense of balance throughout the album, leavening the pain of "Till Death Do Us Part" with the lighthearted love of "Cherish," contrasting the trauma of "Oh Father" with the libidinal power games of "Love Song" (a coy, musically adventurous duel-duet with Prince) and juxtaposing the ecstatic fervor of "Like a Prayer" with the Catholic injoking of "Act of Contrition."
As for her image, well, you may see her navel on the inner sleeve, but what you hear once you get inside the package is as close to art as pop music gets. Like a Prayer is proof not only that Madonna should be taken seriously as an artist but that hers is one of the most compelling voices of the Eighties. And if you have trouble accepting that, maybe it's time for a little image adjustment of your own.