I've spent so much time lately reviewing equipment that I found I was forgetting that the whole point of the exercise is to listen to music. With that in mind I'm doing a series of occasion articles focusing on records that mean a lot to me, in the hope that some of you might give them a spin and share my enjoyment.
I came to Madonna late. I remember her in the early/mid 80's as a rather gawkey dancer pumped up to sing pop songs of the most commercial (who said "spicey"?) variety. As I was also a very young teacher at the time I tended to dismiss my pupils adoration of her, by pointing out the gulf between her and "the real thing" i.e. Debbie Harry. I suppose her transformation into Marilyn Monroe in "Material Girl" showed that she could do class, but I simply wasn't interested in her as anything serious.
Winding the clock on to the early 90's found me living in France and beginning to "panic buy" vinyl as it disappeared from the shelves. I saw a copy of "Like a Prayer" for 3 quid and snapped it up for the odd party, never have I underestimated an album or an artist so completely.
In my ignorance I didn't realise that Madonna wrote all her own songs and that unlike almost all other female singers she was in charge of her image and publicity - something she used to create persona's and legends, many sexual, in much the same way as Bowie had done a decade before. The end result was the richest self made woman in the world - all her own work. This alone makes her finest album an "essencial" purchase, just to see how she did it, but it stands on its own merits without this.
Track 1 - Immediately a super slick, "this is how you make a modern pop song" demonstration in the title track. Made for dancing, catchy with enough variety and clever production to lift it from the usual dross into something you can listen to for pleasure. The Catholic links that pervade the album surface to give an interesting twist - this is what I expected and more, great fun.
"Express yourself" was more of the same, aimed at the No. 1 slot... But then comes "Love Song", a wierd, stop/start duet with Prince where she whispers "impress moi!" perhaps in homage to Debbie Harry's "impress moi ce soire". Prince's influence is very evident, (and he says "what?" in reply) but it is also uncommercial as much as any Madonna song can be.
Having been a little knocked off guard you ease into another pop number "Till Death do us Part", but hang on what is is about? What starts as a No. 1 chaser twists into a spikey attack from a battered wife to her unloving husband. The juxtposition of one of the catchiest tunes you'll ever hear with angry, hurt lyrics stops you like a slap in the face, far more effective than the more obvious mewings of Ms O'Connor because it's so unexpected. Suddenly I had found a Madonna with depth. Even so the next track "I Promise to Try" caught me out. It's a low key song where Madonna sings two parts, an adult (her) singing to the mother who died when she was tiny, and the mother herself. This is the only record I have ever heard that brought tears to my eye's, and if you, like me, have small children I defy you to listen and not be deeply moved.
Nothing could follow this track, and thankfully nothing does for here is one of the last records obviously structured for vinyl, for "Promise to Try" is at the end of side one. I really don't see how CD listeners can cope without a long pause and a sigh before turning the record over.
Side two gives us another No 1 candidate with "Cherish", followed by "Dear Jessie" a saccarine song for children which again is so catchy you just can't stop listening and smiling. Then "Oh Father". A daughter talking, giving absolution to a Father who abused her. In it she takes the blame too, classic abused behaviour, again it leaves more obvious rants against abuse sounding self pitying. "Keep it together" is a call to the family followed by "Spanish eye's" perhaps the most cryptic track, lacing a Spanish civil war (?) romance with catholicism - very strange. The last track "Act of Contrition" is a heartfelt, angry, guilt ridden chant for her Catholic past, as uncommerial as you could get and yet riviting.
At one level this album is essential because along with Jackson's "Thriller" it epitomises the 80's pop song. Yet unlike "Thriller" it has massive depth, written and performed by a mature human being prepared to put her life and experiences on record. In this it is hugely brave without being self indulgent. Madonna had gone from a disco dancer to the most important female artist of the last two decades. In "Like a Prayer" you will find out how she did it.
Recording Quality: 7/10
© Copyright 2004 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com