Erotica and Sex. That confluence alone would make Like A Prayer an especially fascinating chapter in Madonna's chameleonic career. But she went another step and practically made a concept album out of it, with at least half of the songs dealing with Family, whether literal or figurative. To belabor the point: mother ("Promise to Try"), father ("Oh Father"), sisters and brothers ("Keep It Together"), children ("Dear Jessie"), lovers ("Love Song", "Cherish"), spouses ("Till Death Do Us Part")...you get it.
What Madonna does here, also more than with any other album, is bare her soul. Much has been made of her intense love and longing for her mother, who died when Madonna was five, and whom Madonna has emulated and idolized. You hear her feelings spilled out on the gorgeous and deathly serious "Promise to Try," full of swelling strings and deep piano. Her pain also bleeds through on "Oh Father," during which she invokes not just the pain her father inflicted on her, but the symbolic Father of her church as well. But arguably, her deepest pain comes during the frenetic "Till Death Do Us Part." Remove the lyrics, and you have what could almost pass for a happy pop song. But at the time, Madonna was going through tremendous relationship anguish with her then-husband Sean Penn, and the couple divorced shortly before Like A Prayer was released. If the rumors on the tabloids didn't spell out her troubles clearly enough, her lyrics sure did: After listening to "The bruises, they will fade away/You hit so hard with the words you say," it was hard not to feel guilty over reducing Sean and Madonna to a celebrity couple for our consumption and amusement.
On the lighter side, "Dear Jessie" is a sweet and whimsical pop confection sung to a little girl, all "pink elephants and lemonade...candy kisses and a sunny day." Who knew Madonna could be so endearing, guileless, and motherlike? There's no other song in Madonna's canon like it, and it's utterly delightful. And in the midst of so many relationships on the album gone wrong, "Cherish" celebrates a deep and fulfilling relationship gone right...beyond infatuation and even beyond romance into joyous hopes for a lifetime of solid love with her perfect man. (I must pause here: that video. WHEW...that video. Those perfectly muscled and gorgeous mermen. *sigh*) And if there is any song that still keeps one foot firmly planted in the '80s, it's "Keep It Together." With a funky bassline and awesome syncopation, the song could fit seamlessly in True Blue from three years before. But instead of yelling "where's the party?" or naively gushing that "love makes the world go round," she profoundly asserts: "Brothers and sisters...they hold the key to your heart and your soul...don't forget that your family is gold." So much for the lighthearted hedonism of her youth...she's beginning to grow up.
The best and most convincing message on Like a Prayer comes in the form of self-affirmation and women's empowerment with "Express Yourself." The version here is pretty lighthearted and celebratory, full of synthesized brass and hoots. You know Madonna has some hard-won wisdom when she sings "You deserve the best in life, so if the time isn't right, then move on! Second-best is never enough...you'll do much better, baby, on your own!" Pop seldom has such profound lyrics, so hearing this song on FM radio was a revelation. (The version on The Immaculate Collection is a good deal rawer and funkier, but both versions are equally effective and enjoyable.)
The two songs that bookend the album are also nearly mirror images of each other. I'd argue that the title song is actually one of the weaker songs here. Bouncing between hushed gospel choruses and the bold sounds Madonna is known for does not make for a convincing song. Having said that, check out that edgy video. And duh...we all know what she meant when she sang "I'm down on my knees/I wanna take you there." (Again, I have to point out the version on The Immaculate Collection, which is a vast improvement on the original; its insistent crescendo suits the mood perfectly.) But then you play the song backward, add in some wild guitar strangling and botched tongue-in-cheek Catholic prayers ("Who art all good/Like I knew you would/And deserving of all my love"), and you have the hilarious "Act of Contrition." It would be unfair to disclose how the song ends. Just listen to it.
Hell, just listen to the whole album. And buy it. Yes, it's kind of a relic from the '80s, but it's also damn near impeccable. I'm not the biggest Madonna fan - in fact, I find it hard to muster up much enthusiasm for the majority of her music - but this album really has to be heard.