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Madonna's new album "Like a Prayer" hits the stores today amid much hype and hoopla. The News' rock critic takes a calm look at its artistic value.

MARILYN MONROE would envy the way Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone has captured the world's attention during the past few weeks. In a public arena dominated by the Islamic uproar over the publication of "The Satanic Verses" and Congressional cataclysm over the alleged sins of former Sen. John Tower, the Material Girl has nudged her way to center stage and stolen the limelight.

Where Monroe merely had the power of her film image and her press notices, Madonna has had the help of a multinational soft drink company and a gaggle of outraged religious fundamentalists. First, she lit up mass media around the globe with her celebrated commercial for Pepsi-Cola (and the commercials for that commercial). That was followed by the controversial video for her new single, "Like a Prayer," which was banned in Italy.

The visual version of "Like a Prayer" takes the song considerably beyond the innocent devotional sentiments of its lyrics. With its flaming crosses and weeping statues, it taps into the mystical power of Madonna's Catholic background to make a statement about sanctuary from evil (her flight from a rape scene) and the blessings of goodness.

With the video, Madonna asks for the same thing Monroe used to ask for -- to be taken seriously. The Madonna album that's reaching the stores today, also called "Like a Prayer" (Sire 25844-1 Warner Bros.), ensures that she will be. And, as for this past month of hype, it also ensures some serious sales figures -- advance orders totaled 2 million in the United States alone.

Madonna has done the same thing Monroe did when she wanted to get serious -- she's turned her blond hair back to black. Further evidence of her seriousness is the "Facts About AIDS" card inserted in the album.

Nevertheless, those fascinated by the supermarket tabloid aspects of Madonna's life will not be disappointed. The 10 tracks on the "Like a Prayer" album are highly autobiographical. Consider them songs of experience.

She sings about the cruelties that drove her away from home in the stunning "Oh Father" ("You can't hurt me now/I got away from you, I never thought I would"); the regrets about her mother's early death in the tender "Promise to Try" ("Little girl, don't run away so fast/I think you forgot to kiss -- kiss her goodbye"); and of reunion with her brothers and sisters in "Keep It Together."

The most pointed personal references, however, come in "Till Death Do Us Part." Full of veiled scenes from her tempestuous marriage to actor Sean Penn, the song paints a particularly anguishing picture of a sado-masochistic relationship between an abusing husband and a battered wife who wishes, despite it all, that she didn't have to escape:

"The bruises, they will fade away

You hit so hard with the things you say

I will not stay to watch your hate as it grows

You're not in love with someone else

You don't even love yourself

Still I wish you'd ask me not to go."

She looks at romance differently, too. "Express Yourself" tells girls not to settle for the flash of a big car and bouquets of flowers. "Cherish," with its reflective glance off the old Association hit, speaks to a higher love.

Elsewhere, love and prayer unite in the midnight thoughts of a revolutionary's lady in "Spanish Eyes."

There are only a few non-serious moments in the "Like a Prayer" album. One of them comes in "Love Song," a quirky piece of funk co-written and produced by Prince.

The other is the final "Act of Contrition," a swirl of tape loops and sampled sounds that include Madonna reciting the "Hail Mary."

Nor is this a pop dance album like her earlier LPs, although it starts out that way. The uplifting beat of the title song grows more insistent in the joyous "Express Yourself" and the Prince song, but then the heavy significance of "Till Death Do Us Part" brings the party to a halt.

In short, the Madonna of "Like a Prayer" is older and wiser than the Madonna of "Like a Virgin," the song and album that brought her to full-fledged stardom in 1984.

Though she's still baring her midriff, Madonna's not the saucy "boy toy" she used to be. This time she's a woman with a past -- a big sister who's run into a few hard times and moved back home.

As the voice of experience, she's well worth listening to.

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