The album where Madonna truly expressed herself
It's been 30 years since the release of Like a Prayer, the pop masterpiece that came closer than any other record to capturing the real Madonna Louise Ciccone, writes John Meagher
When Madonna went into the studio in September 1988 to begin work on what would be her fourth studio album, she was the biggest pop star on the planet. Although not an overnight success - having toiled hard until landing a deal with record label Sire - her career experienced a meteoric rise from the moment she released her debut single Holiday in 1983.
And yet in the 12 months before laying down new material, she had put the music on hold as she tried to prove herself as an actress. A pair of big budget movies, Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl, had failed to wow the critics and her performance in David Mamet's Broadway play Speed-the-Plow had delivered so-so reviews.
There was a lot of turmoil in her private life, too. She was in the wars with husband Sean Penn and they would file for divorce at the beginning of 1989, and she had become fixated that, now aged 30, she was the same age as her mother when she died of breast cancer. Madonna was just five-years-old at the time and was brought up by a difficult father - but more about him later.
While she had changed the course of pop - thanks to some of the most emblematic songs of the decade - she was determined to be taken seriously as an artist and the resulting album, Like a Prayer, certainly delivered on that aspiration.
Released 30 years ago this week, the album remains Madonna's creative high point - a pop masterpiece packed with brilliant songs and one that connects the heart and dance floor.
This was a Madonna who was keen to spread her wings. And it was clearly inspired by the past. Echoes of Phil Spector were all over Cherish while another 1960s influence, Stax Records, could be heard on Express Yourself.
There was a homage of sorts to Simon and Garfunkel in Oh Father while Keep it Together channelled the influence of Sly and the Family Stone.
There was a significant contemporary influence in the diminutive shape of Prince. He duetted with Madonna on the synth-funk Love Song and he played a big part in both Dear Jessie and Act of Contrition.
There was practically no bubblegum pop - although, at her best, Madonna did pop of the bubblegum variety better than anyone. Instead, the songs were from the heart and captured where Madonna was in her life then. "My first couple of albums I would say came from the little girl in me, who is interested only in having people like me, in being entertaining and charming and frivolous and sweet," Madonna told Interview magazine shortly after the album's release.
"And this new one is the adult side of me, which is concerned with being brutally honest."
She may have bristled at the idea that every lyric on the album was completely autobiographical, telling Vogue that "people don't see that you can take some of your experiences from real life and use part of them in your art... they try to make everything an absolute truth" but, in truth, this was the album that came closer than any other to capture the real Madonna Louise Ciccone.
The video for the title track generated plenty of controversy. Madonna's Catholic upbringing certainly informed aspects of the song, and - like Prince - she found ripe pickings in the idea that sex and religion could be interlinked.
Directed by Mark Lambert, the video certainly played up on that aspect with it's KKK-style burning crosses and Madonna's attraction to a black saint. The Vatican condemned it and Pepsi - who had paid Madonna a reported $30m to appear in one of their commercials - were forced to drop her after Bible-Belt America reared up in rage.
The public loved Like a Prayer however, and the song topped the charts around the world - including a two-week stay at number one here. It was bookended by Jason Donovan's Too Many Broken Hearts and Guns N' Roses' Paradise City.
It was the start of a heady few years in which Madonna courted controversy at every turn. The album, Erotica, and a coffee-table book of erotic photographs, Sex, followed.
But back to the album. Oh Father was clearly about her dad, Tony, with whom she had a difficult relationship. He had remarried (the family's housekeeper) when Madonna was seven and she and her siblings took it badly.
"Like all young girls, I was in love with my father and I didn't want to lose him," she recalled in the 1991 documentary film In Bed With Madonna, which chronicled the Blond Ambition tour of the preceding year. "I lost my mother, but then I was my mother... and my father was mine... When he married my stepmother, it was, 'okay, I don't need anybody'. I hated my father for a long, long time."
Promise to Try, meanwhile, was about the death of her mother, also called Madonna. It was the first time one of her songs captured the seismic impact of losing a parent while still so young, and she would return to the subject on subsequent albums.
It may not have had the radio-baiting appeal of Express Yourself or Cherish but it's the emotional heart of the album and the song that makes a mockery out of Madonna's suggestions that it's not nearly as autobiographical as listeners might think.
The role of co-songwriters and producers Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard cannot be underestimated. Both had helped shape Madonna's career up to that point and, on Like a Prayer, they helped her transition as an artist without abandoning the core strengths that had made her so universally adored on both the Like a Virgin and True Blue albums. Dear Jessie was inspired by Leonard's daughter, Jessie.
While it was Leonard who co-wrote the lion's share of the songs, Bray - famed for writing Into the Groove - penned one of very best of her lesser-known songs, Supernatural which, inexplicably was left off the album. It later surfaced on the Aids benefit album, Red Hot and Dance.
Madonna was in the peak of her powers in 1989 and that same year she starred alongside then boyfriend Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy, based on the 1930s comic strip. In 1990 she released a soundtrack album, I'm Breathless (a play on the character of Breathless Mahoney she played in the film), and it featured a big hit, Vogue. Incidentally, the song's slick video was directed by a pre-fame David Fincher.
A best-of - The Immaculate Collection - would follow at the end of 1990 and, at 30 million copies sold, it remains the best selling compilation album ever by a female artist.
But, 30 years on, it's Like a Prayer that reminds us that Madonna wasn't just about great singles. It's a defining album that has held up remarkably well.