Confessions From Madonna : 'Like a Prayer' represents a leap, but not very far : Great Balls of Fire, Knockin' on Heaven's, Good Vibrations, Maybe Baby, Ain't That a Shame : MADONNA "Like a Prayer." Sire. ***

A mournful song about the empty space left in a child's life by the death of a mother. A song about a stormy relationship with a father. A song about an even stormier relationship with a spouse. A song about everyone else in the family who hasn't already been covered. A less-than-reverent song about religion.

No, this isn't John Lennon's tell-all "Plastic Ono Band," but Madonna's fourth album--and her first real entry as a student in the "confessional" school of singer/songwriters. The premier dance-music diva doesn't go to any great lengths to camouflage what would seem, to a casual observer of pop culture and tabloids, to be outright autobiography in many of the songs here. The revealing lyric sheet of "Like a Prayer" is guaranteed to be the most closely examined and heavily quoted one of the year.

Once the personality columnists have had their go at it, how will that lyric sheet stand up to a more aesthetic examination? Though she stumbles in some of her baby steps as an outright personal writer, with some awkward combinations of music and lyric, Madonna succeeds in overcoming her biggest obstacle: For many listeners, especially teen-age girls and young marrieds, "Like a Prayer" will transcend being an exercise in celebrity voyeurism and speak directly to their own hearts, their own experiences. In that, it's quite an accomplishment.

The soul-baring reaches its dramatic peaks with "Till Death Do Us Part" (a familiar-sounding tale of a co-dependent marriage marked by an abusive husband's hurled vases, broken-down doors and psychological neediness), and "Oh Father" ("You can't make me cry, you once had the power/ I never felt so good about myself"). On the more celebratory and hit-bound side are "Express Yourself" (the distaff side of "Tell Her About It" advises gals to go for honest lovers over romantic flower-givers) and "Keep It Together," a funky, feel-good exercise in embracing blood ties.

Madonna's fourth is also quite a leap musically--though not always quite as great a leap as you might hope for. All techno-pop aside, there are several string-laden departures, including the McCartney-esque lullaby "Dear Jessie." Most odd are the closing "Act of Contrition" (two minutes of incongruous guitar-choir-tape-loop weirdness accompanied by Hail Marys) and an offbeat collaboration with Prince, "Love Song," which finds his playful style dominating her straightforwardness.

"Like a Prayer" is more like a promise that these turmoils too shall pass for Madonna, that--true to the bad cliche--she'll be a better artist for 'em. The easy admonition of "You can dance" has given way to "Let the choir sing," and if this album is far from a perfectly crafted transition in her development, it's a perfectly honest one.

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