Album Reviews

Prince – Musicology

(Columbia) UK release date: 19 April 2004


Aaah, the ’80s. Salvaged by the bookends of post-punk and the rise of dance music, there was the interminable in-between years of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis, pop stars that looked like your golfed-up Dad. There was Steve Wright In The Afternoon, Gary’s Bit-In-The-Middle, Simon Bates and Our Tune and Whitney Houston and her pitch-perfect bland-outs. Countless indie bands – shambling, insular, thinking it was enough to re-write the Velvet Underground songbook, spandex, Eddie Murphy smoothie moustaches. And oh my goodness, Jonathan King.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t all that bad, but fer Madge‘s sake, it felt like it. But one artist managed to punch his weight in the big leagues, succeeded in a little bit of subversion, while upsetting all the right people with just a turn of a ludicrously elevated heel. In addition, he also managed to assemble a body of work to compare in dash, spark, and versatility with any popular great of the last 50 years. Pop life, everybody needs a thrill.

But just when it seemed that Minneapolis’ Prince Rogers Nelson couldn’t fail, along came grunge, gangsta rap, ambient and hardcore – it’s the ’90s. Party’s over. Oops, out of time.

Now the dust has settled and a new power generation rules the roost, Prince is once again the correct name to drop at the right parties. The backlash has faded, and so thankfully have any hieroglyphics and “slaves” henna-ed across a powdered cheek. The question is, after so many false dawns, is Musicology the return to form promised in all the blurbs?

In between his Watch Tower paper round, the once and future Prince has formulated a record that has resisted the deathless jams and big production numbers that blighted albums like Symbol. For much of Musicology, Prince has a brimful of confidence, but sounds like a man willing to age gracefully, like a jazz-man of yore. Albeit rather slowly. In Reflection, Prince even has the audacity to leave one lusty lovely back in the boudoir, while he “sits out on the stoop” playing his guitar. What would Darling Nikki have said?

There’s a strong sense of reclaiming turf lost. The title track threatens to be just one of those aimless displays of virtuosity, but its flexy b-line and pared down percussion are enough to give you “the feeling music gave ya / back in the day”.

Call My Name is the kind of polymorphic ballad that Prince has made his own since he first got soft and wet on his first record. On The Couch is tragically not a chaise-lounge confessional, but a tale of Our Princey in not-getting-his-leg-over-schock, in his best referential / reverential Curtis Mayfield high-register. It may not be Blue Monday People, but Prince does his concerned citizen routine on Dear Mr Man, and pretty convincingly too for a millionaire narcissist.

The sweetly considered Reflection aside, it’s Illusion, Coma, Pimp And Circumstance that stands a kinky curl or two above the rest of the material here. Ostensibly a dark tale of that old chestnut, dirty cash (“Money might talk / But what does it say?”) ICP & C is the royal standard kind of warped, perverse funk that made Prince’s Black Album such a guilty thrill for record-fair botherers all those years ago.

It ain’t all good news. After all, this is Prince. Despite its FM-Rock Radio leanings, A Million Days fails to transform itself into Little Red Corvette while Cinnamon Girl has clearly bolted from Prince’s stable of lightweight anti-war meanderings (i.e. more Ronnie Talk To Russia than Sign O’ The Times).

If you’re looking for the lurid details of personal tragedies, you’ll have to dig deep. The Marrying Kind contains none of the scabrous info that has occasionally cropped up in our ever-dutiful popular press. More surprisingly, there’s little indication of Prince’s conversion to Jehovah. Compared to the Prince we knew, Musicology is almost (almost) secular, with less of the endearingly loopy sex-as-salvation fixation. Maybe the times have changed when Prince no longer dedicates his erection to the Lord.

Musicology is more than just an exercise in redressing a rep, and convinces that there’s just a chance that our Prince may come again. No pun intended.


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