You've gotta hand it to Madonna. Lots of other pop stars would've changed their names or not think a second thought about them... let alone play it like some extended metaphor to the hilt. I mean, a pop album called Like a Prayer by "Madonna." I would've done a whole trilogy of albums with double-entendre titles: Communion. Songs Of Revelation. And Confessions On A Dancefloor would be embedded in a whole different context.
Madonna nests the album in a weirdly attractive
funky-Catholic vibe, between the opening title song and the
interlude-like final track (where it's clear by the end Madonna is
in fact going to Hades... not to give anything away, but Madonna is
funny). "Like A Prayer" is the best pop track she has ever produced
(which is saying a lot, this being Madonna), hitting all of her
signature strengths right on the head, creating a song that can
either be taken for gospel pop or sexual ecstasy. It flawlessly
segues into the extremely effective "Express Yourself," albeit a
more textbook pop song than "Like A Prayer," reaching ecstatic
heights of Maslovian peak experience.
My next favorite on this album is "Keep It Together," a tight and addictive dance track that closed the concerts of the Blond Ambition tour. Madonna however is a greatly underrated balladeer, and the poignant emotional energies of "Cherish," "Oh Father" and "Promise To Try" do not disappoint. Straight balladeers usually have one emotion (Whitney Houston can do drama but little else, Celine Dion can't sing the blues) but Madonna is authentically joyful, angry, and longing in the space of a few tracks, presenting a range that has never really translated to movies.
There are only two tracks that feel like unfinished clunkers: "'Til Death Do Us Part," presumably about her breakup with Sean Penn, and the bizarre and forced imagery of "Spanish Eyes." The former is better off as a forgotten b-side and the latter shouldn't have been released at all. A collaboration with Prince, "Love Song," springing from an aborted attempt to write a musical together, is either loved or reviled by fans; I don't think it really belongs on the album but it's a good preview of how well Madonna collaborates with other artists to produce something both hers and theirs.
This is the one Madonna album where everything came together: "controversial" imagery, the best pop production of the time, and a tour to end all tours. After Like A Prayer Madonna would think she'd done all she can with pop, and move on to "reinventing" herself, hitting some serious highs and lows along the way until reaching the "edgy" plateau that began with Ray Of Light and continues on to this day.
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