...a kind of flawed redemption...
There must have been some kind of weird astral alignment going on back in 1958. That year saw the births of not one, not two, but three certifiable American pop geniuses in the shapes of Michael Jackson, Madonna Louise Ciccione and Prince Rogers Nelson – a superhuman triumvirate who by the end of the 1980s had amassed more cultural currency and broken more new musical ground than any act since The Beatles. Yet, just as they were tied together by birth, so were they tied together by failure in the wilderness years of the 1990s – Jackson was the first to go, as child abuse allegations and their subsequent out-of-court settlements crippled his once-infallible empire. Madonna contented herself with an embarrassing movie career and an even more embarrassing conversion to full-blown Anglophile. However, it was Prince’s own career implosion that was the most wilful, down to bloody-mindedness rather than dubious accusations or dubious acting.
Prince spent the 1990s on a musical journey that he found his fanbase was unwilling to undertake with him, encompassing as it did ridiculous name changes and fairly abominable records. It was a lesson in how to waste talent from arguably the most talented US pop star in decades. It’s a lesson that still may not yet be over; as, according to reports, the one-time Sexy MF is now simply the Infuriating MF, spending his spare time going door to door in his native Minneapolis handing out pamphlets for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And so the battle lines are drawn for ‘Musicology’, Prince’s first major-label album in almost a decade, and the long-rumoured return to ‘proper’ pop music – you know, no symbols, no pulpit preaching, no triple-CD musical odysseys, that sort of thing. And on that level, ‘Musicology’ works perfectly well. It’s a welcome return to the music that made him a superstar, and it’s not just wishful thinking to say that ‘Musicology”s better moments are worthy of a place on era-defining classics like ‘Purple Rain’ or ‘Sign O’ The Times’. Sadly, it is just wishful thinking to harbour hope that ‘Musicology’ could be Prince’s first wholly satisfying album since his ’80s heyday.
It starts off well. The James Brown-fuelled funk of the title track and the cinematic sweep of ‘A Million Days’ are the best things he’s done in ages – the latter in particular seeming certain to yield his first actual hit in years. Bookending the dirty jamming
of the brilliantly-titled ‘Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance’, as an opening salvo it’s sexy, sassy and funky – sexier, sassier and funkier than any album by a hardline Jehovah’s Witness has any right to be – and the funk-rock-soul amalgam that made him so exciting in the first place has rarely sounded so potent.
Sadly, it can’t last. Though untroubled by the pretentiousness that has marred his recent releases, too often on ‘Musicology’ Prince reverts to formula as opposed to inverting it – the schmaltzy identikit R&B of ‘Call My Name’ sounds like a Boyz II Men B-side written to order by Lionel Richie. It’s honestly that shit. ‘Dear Mr Man”s hamfisted social commentary not only feels laboured, it’s spectacularly out of sync with an album that’s completely unconcerned with its themes.
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Yet there’s real genius at work here – from ‘If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life”s inspired bling-bling piano lines, to the slow-burning, seductive ‘On The Couch’ (sample lyric: “I wanna go down south, baby”) which serves to remind us that while there are Pygmy tribes in Africa who have a sly snigger at his height, he remains a giant of sex, with come-to-bed falsettos and the original superstar booty.
Ultimately, ‘Musicology’ is a kind of flawed redemption, neither inspired enough to be a true classic, nor insipid enough to make it unworthy of your attention. There are moments on here, however fleeting, that prove Prince Rogers Nelson will never lose the ability to surprise and astonish, and there are moments that likewise suggest he’ll never lose the ability to frustrate and confound his audience. Nevertheless, at least one of the class of ’58’s most prodigal of sons has finally returned to something like form.
Get ‘Musicology’ at the NME Shop