Madonna's output is forever characterised by one step forward, six steps back. For every memorable or inventive release, the mediocrity she puts out around it dilutes it like a spoonful of cordial in a gallon jug of water, making it as effective as a homeopathic remedy. After a series of particularly weak singles from the 'Whos That Girl' soundtrack, Madonna found herself staring thirty in the rear view mirror and so it was time to take stock and re-assert herself as a major force instead of a Cyndi Lauper also ran. And with 'Like A Prayer', she had the means to do just that.
'Like A Prayer' is a song of many parts. Opening with a hymnal, church like backing and almost acapella vocal of "Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone', it lurches into a stuttering groove in an awkward time signature that sets out the main musical theme before breaking back down into the quiet of the opening then repeating again from scratch. The straightforward dance beats of old are gone - this is not Studio 52 fodder and there's no groove to get into; even Ginger Rogers would struggle to bust a move to any of this. And yet....and yet, it fair drips with the anticipation that something is coming, just over the horizon.
It's not until 2:45 that this slow burning fuse reaches the charges and 'Like A Prayer' explodes into a swinging gospel led groove that cycles like a whirlwind, sucking in all in its path and levitating them into the ecstasy of a revivalist meeting as Madonna loses herself in her devotion to her lover - "Just like a prayer, your voice can take me there". It's a barnstorming coda, unfussy and direct, something that Mahalia Jackson, ignoring Madonna's sly duality of meaning, could have sung straight and directly to her maker.
Stirring Catholicism and sex into one big pot would become common currency to Ms Ciccone over the years, but it never again would it sound as effective as it does here. There's a maturity to 'Like A Prayer' that puts it light years away from the trampy waif who sang 'Like A Virgin', and yet it has an edge that cuts through any attempts to wrap it up as bland AOR.
Typically, she couldn't just let the song do the talking and it had to come complete with a 'controversial' video of religious iconography culminating in the crucifixion of a black Christ like figure. It's a cheap shot at the church though aimed more at generating maximum publicity, but the song didn't need it and while it was more of a hindrance than a help in 1989, the whole nonsense has thankfully fallen by the wayside through the application of time's eraser.
It's a shame too that this more grown up and considered approach would also fall away. It's not a road that Madonna would go down to any extent again until 1997's 'Ray Of Light', and the tacky disco slut would soon return to sell her wares on the back of the promise of some dirty sex, albeit to ever decreasing returns as the years piled on. 'Like A Prayer' is an 'Into The Groove' shy of being Madonna's best single, but it's close, and in getting so close Madonna threw down a benchmark that she would never better and would struggle to even get close to again.