Like a Prayer is Madonna's fourth studio album that was released on March 21, 1989 by Sire Records.
- Like A Prayer 5:41
- Express Yourself 4:39
- Love Song 4:52
- Till Death Do Us Part 5:18
- Promise To Try 3:38
- Cherish 5:04
- Dear Jessie 4:20
- Oh Father 4:58
- Keep It Together 5:03
- Spanish Eyes 5:17
- Act Of Contrition 2:19
1988 was a quiet year on the recording front for Madonna.
Following the lack of critical and commercial success of her 1987 film" Who's That Girl", she acted in the Broadway production "Speed-the-Plow." However, unfavorable reviews once again caused her discomfort.
Madonna's marriage to actor Sean Penn ended and they filed for divorce in January 1989. She had also turned 30 years old (a year removed from the age at which her mother had died) which caused her experienced more emotional turmoil.
Madonna commented for the May 1989 issue of Interview that her Catholic upbringing struck a feeling of guilt in her all the time, saying: "Because in Catholicism you are a born sinner and you're a sinner all your life. No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time. It was this fear that haunted me; it taunted and pained me every moment. My music was probably the only distraction I had."
Madonna came to the realisation that as she and her fans were growing up, it was time for her to move away from the teen appeal to wider audiences, and en-cash on the longevity of the album market.
Feeling the need to attempt something different, Madonna wanted the sound of her new album to indicate what could be popular in the music world. For lyrical ideas of the title track, she chose topics that until then had been personal meditations never shared with the general public.
She told SongTalk magazine: "In the past I wrote a lot of songs that [revealed my inner self], but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them".
Madonna decided to take a more adult, sophisticated approach; thoughtfully, she sifted through her personal journals and diaries, and began considering her options. She recalled, "What was it I wanted to say? I wanted the album and the song to speak to things on my mind. It was a complex time in my life."
Madonna had certain matters on her mind, including her troubled relationship with her husband, actor Sean Penn, her family, her lost mother and even her belief in God.
"Like a Prayer" was named after the influence of Catholicism on Madonna's early life as well as her struggles with religion. She said: "The theme of Catholicism runs rampant. It's me struggling with the mystery and magic that surrounds it. My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval." The recording sessions for "Like a Prayer" took place from September 1988 to January 1989.
On January 27, 1989, a press release from The Albany Herald said the album would include "a number of hot dance tracks" but noted, "much of the material [...] is of a personal tone."
Madonna described it as a collection of songs "about my mother, my father, and bonds with my family. [...] It's taken a lot of guts to do this".
She also said that it would be her "most different" work to date. According to Madonna: "It was a real coming-of-age record for me emotionally, I had to do a lot of soul-searching, and I think it is a reflection of that [...] I didn't try to candy-coat anything or make it more palatable for mass consumption, I wrote what I felt."
She told Rolling Stone magazine: "In the past, my records tended to be a reflection of current influences. This album is more about past musical influences".
Madonna chose to collaborate with Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard (with whom she had collaborated on her previous studio album "True Blue" and the soundtrack "Who's That Girl")
Both Bray and Leonard wanted to bring their unique style to the project, and they developed completely different music for the title track. Eventually, Madonna felt that the music presented to her by Leonard was more interesting, and she started to work with him.
According to Madonna, Leonard was also facing emotional turmoil, saying: "I was working with Pat, who was also in a very dark state of mind, and we worked in a very isolated place in the Valley". On January 6, 1989, following a nullified divorce filing in late 1987 and several publicized fights (one of which led to a 60-day prison term), Madonna and Sean Penn filed for divorce; this incident inspired the song "Till Death Do Us Part".
The rest of the songs were written within two weeks; with "Like a Prayer", "Cherish" and "Spanish Eyes" being written the first week.
According to Leonard: "We wrote a song a day, and we didn't change them. And oftentimes the vocal that she did was the lead vocal, we didn't even change the lead vocal. That was it. She sang it. It was done."
Recording artist Prince played the guitar on three songs from the album, "Like a Prayer", "Keep It Together", and "Act of Contrition" (though he remained uncredited).
Prince and Madonna also worked together on the track "Love Song." The song was recorded at Prince's Studio on Paisley Park.
According to Madonna: "We were friends and talked about working together, so I went to Minneapolis to write some stuff with him, but the only thing I really dug was 'Love Song' [...] We ended up writing it long-distance, because I had to be in L.A. and he couldn't leave Minneapolis, and quite frankly I couldn't stand Minneapolis. When I went there, it was like 20 degrees below zero, and it was really desolate. I was miserable and I couldn't write or work under those circumstances."
For the artwork, Madonna chose to work with photographer Herb Ritts. Initially, photos from the session with Ritts were also to be used for the lead single's packaging.
For the photoshoot, she decided to dye her blonde hair brown; she commented, "I love blonde hair, but it really does something different to you. I feel more grounded when I have dark hair. It's unexplainable. I also feel more Italian when my hair is dark."
The cover art features a close-up of the singer's jean-clad midsection and bare midriff. It has been seen as a reference to "Sticky Fingers" by The Rolling Stones.
The packaging on the first pressings of the CD, cassette, and LP were scented with patchouli oils to simulate church incense.
A publicist for Warner Bros. Records revealed this had been Madonna's idea; "She wanted to create a flavor of the 60's and the church. She wanted to create a sensual feeling you could hear and smell".
Initial pressings also included an insert with safe sex guidelines and a warning about the dangers of AIDS, to which Madonna had lost friends; its inclusion was decided after Warner Bros. had agreed to release an album by stand-up comedian Sam Kinison the year before, although he had stated that AIDS came from gay men involved in bestiality.
Madonna dedicated the album to "My mother, who taught me how to pray."
According to Stephen Holden, the album "teems with 60's and early 70's echoes – of the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Sly and the Family Stone all pumped up with a brash, if occasionally klutzy, 80's sense of showmanship."
In Madonna's own words, the songs "intertwine her search for faith with her search for her mother."
The opening track is "Like a Prayer" which was also the first song developed for the album.
Once Madonna had conceptualized the way she would interpose her ideas with the music, she wrote the song in about three hours. She described "Like a Prayer" as the song of a passionate young girl "so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life."
It's a pop rock song with elements of gospel music. A choir provides background vocals that heighten the song's spiritual nature, and a rock guitar keeps the music dark and mysterious.
The second track, "Express Yourself", talks about rejecting material pleasures and only accepting the best for oneself; throughout the song, subtexts are employed. According to Madonna, the track is a tribute to Sly & the Family Stone.
The third track, "Love Song", is a duet with recording artist Prince. The song was co-written by Madonna and Prince and features the artist's "signature scratchy disco guitar breaks through Madonna's synths".
Originally titled "State of Matrimony", the song "Till Death Do Us Part" talks about the violent dissolution of Madonna's marriage. The song was described as "an anxious jumpy ballad that describes a marriage wracked with drinking, violent quarrels and a possessive, self-hating husband."
The next song, "Promise to Try" talks about the death of Madonna's mother. In one part of the song, she specifically asks "Does she hear my voice in the night when I call?". Later, an adult seems to admonish a child with the lines, "Little girl, don't you forget her face/Don't let memory play games with your mind/She's a faded smile frozen in time."
The sixth track, and third single from the album is "Cherish." Built around the themes of love and relationship, with William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" being one of the major inspirations, the song includes a line from "Cherish" by the 1960s band The Association.
The lyrics of "Cherish" make it a simple love song, where Madonna talks about devotion and having her lover by her side, whom she would never leave
Following "Cherish" is "Dear Jessie"; according to Rikky Rooksby, the song sounds more like a children's lullaby than a pop song. The lyrics encourage the little girl Jessie to use her imagination. It summons up a psychedelic landscape, where pink elephants roam with dancing moons and mermaids. It references fairy-tale characters and creates an image of children playing with each other.
The nexus of the album's eighth song, "Oh Father", talks about the presence of male authoritative figures in Madonna's life, most prominently her father, Tony Ciccone.
Author J. Randy Taraborrelli held that "Till Death Do Us Part", "Promise To Try" and "Oh Father" were songs where Madonna tried to "purge herself of certain personal demons".
The lyrics of "Keep It Together" talk about the realization of how important Madonna's family has been as a form of stability in her life.
The final songs on Like a Prayer are "Spanish Eyes" and "Act of Contrition".
"Spanish Eyes" is said to have "confronted the still-taboo issue of AIDS." Carol Benson and Allen Metz (authors of "The Madonna Companion: Two Decades of Commentary") described the song as "a cross between Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" and something by Billy Joel".
The final song, "Act of Contrition", features Madonna reciting the Catholic prayer Act of Contrition, then, the vocals deteriorate into a monologue in which Madonna grows obstreperous over being denied a restaurant reservation.
In the United States, "Like a Prayer" debuted at #11 on the Billboard 200, on the issue dated April 8, 1989. It quickly rose to the top of the chart after its third week, where it remained for six consecutive weeks, making it Madonna's longest-running number 1 album.
The album spent a total of 77 weeks on the chart and also reached a peak of #55 on Billboard's R&B Albums list.
It was eventually certified multi Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for shipments of three million units. After the advent of the Nielsen SoundScan era in 1991, it sold a further 575,000 copies.
"Like a Prayer" has sold over 4 million copies in the United States and 15 million copies worldwide.
"Like a Prayer" received critical acclaim. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, from AllMusic, said in retrospect that it was Madonna's "most explicit attempt at a major artistic statement" and that though she is trying to be "serious" Madonna delivers a range of well-written pop songs, making the album her "best and most consistent". In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, Barry Walters wrote that with its more substantial songs that "covered topics such as spousal abuse and familial neglect", Like a Prayer "effectively upped Madonna's ante as a serious artist."
Annie Zaleski, from the entertainment website The A.V. Club, praised the album for "being bold enough to delve into her parental issues", and called it "Madonna's first truly substantial record, the dividing line between her chirpy club-kid days and the mature sounds and themes that increasingly marked her '90s work".
In Rolling Stone, reviewer J. D. Considine wrote that Madonna's fame up to that point had been built more on "image than artistry", but that with "Like a Prayer," Madonna was asking, successfully, to be taken seriously: "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".
Considine concluded his review hailing the album "as close to art as pop music gets ... 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."
Robert Christgau from The Village Voice lamented the "kiddie psychedelia" of "Dear Jessie" and was unmoved by "Promise to Try" and "Act of Contrition", but felt all the other songs were memorable, especially the "cocksucker's prayer" of "Like a Prayer" and the "thrilling", independence-themed "Oh Father" and "Express Yourself".
Lloyd Bradley of Q said, "musically it's varied, unexpected and far from instantly accessible; lyrically, it's moving, intelligent and candid."
Edna Gundersen from USA Today wrote that album was "Lyrically [...] a confessional feast, with Madonna's Catholic upbringing as the main course. Songs are rife with religious overtones, spiritual and hymnal arrangements and a host of references to joy, faith, sin and power".
NME critic David Quantick hailed it as "a brilliant, thoughtful, startling and joyful example of popular music."
Jonathan Takiff from The Philadelphia Inquirer praised the album for being "serious and reflective, at times heavily laden with psychic trauma. You might consider Like a Prayer to be [Madonna]'s Misfits...or her hour in the confessional box".
Sal Cinquemani, from Slant Magazine, described the album as "a collection of pop confections layered with live instrumentation, sophisticated arrangements, deeply felt lyrics, and a stronger, more assured vocal."
The review concluded by declaring "Like a Prayer" "one of the quintessential pop albums of all time.
Barry Walters from the San Francisco Examiner, named the album "[Madonna]'s best and most consistent collection yet [...] the album [where Madonna] crosses the line between craft and inspiration. From the start, she's had an intuitive grasp of how to put on a good show. Now she's got the guts to show us what's inside".
Senior editor from The Cavalier Daily Chaz Repak, praised Madonna's "improved" songwriting; "her religious faith and her marriage to Sean Penn, are completely well written."
However, he ended his review on a more critical note by saying: "Like a Prayer constitutes Madonna's best work to date. But after such work as "Material Girl", "Burning Up" and "Open Your Heart", that's not saying much."
Negative criticism came from Spin magazine.
Reviewer Christian Logan wrote: "On Like a Prayer your relationship to Madonna changes from to song to song, and it makes you uncomfortable. It's like sitting on a table with a friend who's telling too much about herself to people she doesn't know".
Joe Levy (from the same magazine) was also critical, writing that "there's not a lot of old Madonna, nothing of the generation of women who grew up in her wake: Regina, Debbie Gibson, and Taylor Dayne", but highlighted "Keep It Together" as "the only great dance song on the record".
At the end of 1989, "Like a Prayer" was voted the 18th best record of the year in the Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of American critics published by The Village Voice and was nominated for a Grammy Award for "Best Engineered Album."
Madonna performed an energetic version of "Express Yourself" during the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards. She started the performance by descending from a flight of stairs, wearing a pin-striped suit and a monocle.
Later, Madonna removed the coat to reveal her bustier, and together with her backing singers Niki Haris and Donna De Lory, performed a dance routine called voguing.
Ian Inglis (author of "Performance and Popular Music: History, Place and Time") noted that the historical importance of Madonna's performance at the Video Music Awards was due to the televisual venue.
Inglis explained that since Madonna's performance was striking primarily as a high-energy, provocatively choreographed, dance production number, it went on to highlight the 'TV' part of MTV, and in a way heralded her and the network as a cultural arbiter.
In August of 1989, in order to promote the release of Like a Prayer in Japan, Warner Music released a remix extended play titled Remixed Prayers, which included several remixes of "Like a Prayer" and "Express Yourself".
It was released exclusively in Japan until July 1993, when it was released in Australia to celebrate Madonna's first visit to the country as part of Madonna's Girlie Show World Tour.
The EP reached #24 on the Oricon weekly albums chart and was present on the chart for five weeks.