March 4, 2013 by NowhereButPop
As of 2013, we’ve all become fairly familiar with the idea of Madonna expressing herself, as it usually involves some combination of the following: running around naked, crucifying herself on stage, having sex with Vanilla Ice in public, and speaking with a faux-British accent. In 1989, however Madonna expressed herself through her music, in a poignant and introspective way that became her magnum opus: Like a Prayer. Not only is it her best album because it’s so unlike any other album in her discography, it’s also her old man album. Like a Prayer is the sound of Madonna trying to rectify her present (fame, money, success) with her past (upbringing, religion, death of her mother) in a way that compromises neither.
The very essence of an old man album comes from the crossroads that the artist is whence making the album. It’s the point in time where an artist has to look back at where they were and decide where they will go from here. For Madonna, she had just become the international mega-star that we all know her to be today, but at the same time she was still getting acclimated to it all. Every single song on the album is reflective of a Madonna who is unsure of not only herself, but her future and even her present. It’s a Madonna who is confused, insightful and more mature than she has ever been in her career. The album represented a chance to forge a future crafted from confronting her past head on.
The album begins with the uber-hit title track. As soon as the distorted guitars fade in the listener already knows this will be a stark departure from her previous work: True Blue. This will not only be more rock-influenced, but rawer, and edgier and even more vulnerable than the bubblegum pop sounds of True Blue. Five minutes into Like a Prayer Madonna has already turned her crisis of faith into a top 5 hit single and revealed her vulnerabilities for the entire world to see. “Like a Prayer” more so than any other song sums up the pathos and themes of the album, and it’s due in large part to not only the personal and introspective lyrics, but to the music as well. Much of the gospel, rock, and soul sounds are inspired by Prince, who is rumored to have produced and played guitar for much of the album. But regardless, “Like a Prayer” let’s the listeners know what’s to come: sorrow, introspection, vulnerability, fear, but ultimately hope.
Next up is “Express Yourself”, a song not only about female empowerment, but also about self empowerment for Madonna who was going through a bitter divorce from Spicoli. It almost sounds like a cautionary tale when she sings the chorus “Don’t go for second best…make him express how he feels, maybe then you’ll know your love is real”. It’s as if she’s trying to warn other women not to make the same mistakes she made with Sean Penn, and for them to know for certain that their men only have eyes for them. “Express Yourself” is the most assured and confident Madonna sounds on the album and it’s because of her positioning as the narrator of the song. She’s passing on a message of empowerment to a stranger, and not divulging her biggest (and saddest) baggage to us.
Prince’s only contribution (in print at least) is the third track masterpiece “Love Song” which captures the sexual and romantic aspects of their music into a funky and sexy little ditty. The chemistry between them is amazing as they both ponder “Are you wasting my time”, and it’s quite a shame that they never did any follow up collaborations. The entire song is just a laid-back, mellow groove that is probably one of the lighter songs on the album, but at the same time it reinforces that this is a more mature Madonna.
“Till Death do Us Part” is an autobiographical account of her marriage to Sean Penn and the abuses she suffered as a result. The song goes beyond being sad and melancholy, and into the realm of being hauntingly personal. Complete with the sounds of smashing glass and lyrics of an abusive relationship, it’s songs like “Till Death do Us Part” that exemplify that this is an album that is unlike any other Madonna had put out, namely because it’s so personal.
Carrying on this trend of introspection and personal divulgence is the track “Promise to Try” which is a ballad sung by Madonna to her five year old counterpart imploring her to be strong in the face of her mothers’ death. It’s the sound of regret for Madonna; she’s getting the chance to tell her younger self what she wanted to her at that age but never did hear. She wants her younger self to promise to try and remember her mother and the love she had for her. As far as ballads go, to this day it’s one of the most personal songs that Madonna as ever written.
Sounding like an outtake from True Blue, “Cherish” serves as a nice change of pace on the album. The personal lyrics and more developed exploration of other genres are all what makes the album great, but “Cherish” reminds everyone that this is still Madonna, and she’s still going to make feel good love songs, which is exactly what “Cherish”. It’s a light and fun song that serves as the perfect intermission between all the heaviness and soul searching that occurs during the rest of the album. Even though it doesn’t fit in thematically with the rest of the album, “Cherish” is a critical song to have on the album to keep the listener from being overwhelmed by the rest of the content on the album.
Even though “Cherish” is a much lighter and poppier song, it’s still not filler. If any song on Like a Prayer is such, it’s “Dear Jessie”, a song that doesn’t quite make sense or fit in with the rest of the album. Sounding more like a lullaby than a pop-hit, the lyrics seem to describe a made up world conjured up by a nine year old Madonna. Riding on the heels of “Cherish”, “Dear Jessie” is a song that overdoes it on the fluff and cuteness. The song itself seems to forget that it’s on Like a Prayer and not Kidz Bop. Maybe the original purpose was to convey a sense of innocence on an otherwise mature and somewhat controversial album, but it doesn’t quite vibe with the rest of the album because of this. It’s the wrong song on the wrong album.
As “Promise to Try” was an ode to her mother, “Oh Father” is obviously attributed to her father. However, unlike “Promise to Try” which remembered her mother fondly, “Oh Father” accuses her father of never loving her and always wanting to hurt her. One of the most personal songs on the album, “Oh Father” is the second part of a trilogy of songs relating to her family. The final part of the trilogy that begin with “Promise to Try” is “Keep it Together” which, behind a funky beat, talks of the importance of family. In 1989, “Keep it Together” was the song that characterized Madonna and her music. It perfectly captures her drive to be a success as well as her attempts to confront her past problems. This is her stardom song, the song where she comments on her fame, an important aspect of the old man album. With lines like “I hit the big times, but I still get the blues” and “People can be so cold…just giving to get something back”, the song serves to comment on the difference between those that love her because she is famous, and those that love her for who she is, namely her family. Despite all her troubles at home, “Keep it Together” is a song that stresses the importance of family, especially in times of personal crisis.
The penultimate track, “Spanish Eyes”, moves away from the personal and into the realm of social consciousness with its lyrics reflective of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. She manages to fit this in perfectly with the rest of the album however via the heavy usage of religious tones, constantly referencing God and Jesus Christ as saviors who could potentially heal those with the virus. Madonna exposes her own sense of helplessness as well as she laments that all she can do is offer her prayers and tears to those affected.
The last track, “Act of Contrition”, more of an outro than a song, is just that: an act of contrition, of penance, of absolution. It’s the most important track on the album as it serves as the lynchpin that ties up all the other tracks together. We get the distorted guitars, background choir, heavy dance beats, and lyrics asking for absolution against personal sins. “Act of Contrition” is the sound of Madonna washing her hands clean of the past, by “confessing my sins, and do my penance” and moving on to the future. The purpose of confession is to not only be forgiven, but to try not to repeat the sin again. For Madonna it means letting go of the past and leaving it there. “Act of Contrition” sums of Like a Prayer for what it is: using songs like a prayer to exorcise her own personal demons.
 The guitar solo of this song was also cut and pasted by Lady Gaga on her song “The Queen”. It appears that the “similarities” between Like a Prayer and Born This Way are deeper than we originally thought.