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Peter Murphy, 26 Apr 2004
Recent reports have it that Prince has been ministering door to door for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s a certain logic in this: waiting for a great new album from the artist formerly known as The Artist is almost as frustrating as waiting for an end of the world that never happens. Like the apocalypse, Prince constantly threatens to drop the big one, only for the Rapture to reveal itself as another Tribulation.
Not that rock ’n’ roll and religion don’t mix. His last album The Rainbow Children may have been an extended Witness hymn, but arguably his finest tune ‘Sign O’ The Times’ was also a Jehovah’s anthem, and his best ballads – ‘The Ladder’, The Cross’ – rejoiced in a moving hunger for communion with the Creator. This is a guy of whom Miles Davis once said, “It’s the church thing I hear in his music that makes him special.”
But how an artist so locked into the groove of the times could become so irrelevant within half a decade of his supremacy is maybe the greatest u-blew-it pop parable since Michael Jackson. This writer has reviewed at least three Prince albums over the last seven years (including the three-album set Emancipation) and I’ll be damned if I can remember the names of more than a couple of songs.
Of all the icons who saved the 80s – Madonna, Bruce, U2 – you’d have expected Prince to stay the course, not just because the dominant musical forms of the last decade (hip-hop, urban, R&B) have all taken place on his musical turf, but also because he once seemed capable of anything: he could sing like Curtis (and sometimes Otis), play like Jimi, write like Bob, dance like James, camp it up like Little Richard and marshal a band like Duke Ellington. But alas, he blew it all on a cut-off-your-nose vendetta against Warner Bros.
But let’s get this in perspective: Musicology is not a disaster, it’s just a case of diminishing returns to the same old territory: chicken-shack Parliament funk (‘Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance’), slurpy Barry White ballads with fussy jazz-rock bits (‘A Million Days’, ‘What Do U Want Me To Do’) and weird muso fusion tunes with fwappedy-doink slap bass and widdly guitar solos that have more to do with Jeff than Beck (who, lest we forget, didn’t so much tip his hat to Prince on 1999’s Midnite Vultures as steal the shirt off his back).
Sure, you can always have fun running your hands over the band’s musculature (the funk is frying on the title track and ‘Life O’ The Party’) but it still sounds like he hasn’t updated the Paisley Park gear in over a decade or more. I swear there are delays on the drum loops here we first heard on ‘Little Red Corvette’. A track like ‘Cinnamon Girl’ (not the Neil Young one) should’ve been a paisley pop nugget circa Around The World In A Day, but instead is a muddled anti-war metaphor with the kind of frou-frou musical frills you’d expect on an old Asia album. Prolificacy can be a curse, and Prince is crying out for a stern editor and the kind of producer – The Neptunes, The RZA, Timbaland, anybody – who’ll tell him where to Get Off.
This Napoleon is complex, but he’s still on Planet Elba.