Prince must wake up some mornings -- or, let's be realistic, afternoons -- and wish he'd never recorded "Purple Rain." Dozens of albums into his career, with a sound as sharp and renewable as anyone's in pop history, he's still slapping away the assumption that he peaked in the 1980s.
Lately he's been getting attention for innovative sidesteps, playing in unusual spots such as the Roosevelt Hotel and giving away close to 3 million copies of his new album to lucky Brits in last week's Mail on Sunday newspaper. But the music at the center of this latest whirl of activity will still be judged against the 49-year-old rebel's youthful landmarks.
On "Planet Earth" (due in stores today), Prince confronts this problem by creating a cunning homage to himself. This tour of the master's cabinet of wonders opens with a spiritually minded power ballad that evokes 1987's "The Cross" without imitating it; the kundalini-stimulating slow jams and genre-hopping hook-fests that follow -- a few reuniting Prince with Wendy and Lisa, the main muses of his big-hair heyday -- explore old themes with just enough variation to stimulate affection instead of a yawn.
What each listener likes will depend on the corner of Prince's aural empire he or she fancies. So far, many prefer "Chelsea Rodgers," a funk throw-down about a book-reading model who "likes to talk to Jimi's ghost," with Prince's new favorite earth mama, Shelby J, nabbing the vocal lead. (Ms. Rodgers, not evident on the track, is apparently flesh and blood; she was by Prince's side during at least one Roosevelt Hotel after-party, and has a website, though it's still under construction.)
Onetime wearers of raspberry-colored berets might prefer "The One You Wanna C," a Wendy and Lisa-powered slice of sunshine that brings back the mechanical hand clap, or "Resolution," an offhanded singalong in which Prince explains how to save the world.
The pimp rap "Mr. Goodnight" also deserves mention, for its smooth delivery and lyrics that would have fit into the script of "Under the Cherry Moon." "I got a mind full of good intentions, and a mouth full of Raisinets," Prince murmurs. Just listen to that eyebrow rise.
There's also "Guitar," in which Prince gets bored with mining his own mother lode and turns to U2's, modifying the Edge's famous riff from "I Will Follow." "Guitar" is a slap at an unfaithful lover and a sly satire of rock 'n' roll grandstanding: "I love you baby, but not like I love my guitar," Prince spits as that riff chases him around the corner. As if he'd ever have to make a choice between the two.
Uniting seeming opposites has always been Prince's mission: masculine and feminine, rock and soul, spirituality and sex come together in his utopia. The deepest track on "Planet Earth" has him working toward this vision again.
Pulled forward by a kick-drum and a thick current of open-tuned guitar, "Lion of Judah" is a cry from the wilderness -- whatever wilderness a multi-millionaire pop star experiences -- blending scriptural references, bedroom musings, and even a veiled reference to John Lennon's "Instant Karma." A ghost of the melody from 1991's "Money Don't Matter 2 Night" lingers around the song, but this is something different. It's Prince now, as conflicted, imaginative and wonderfully weird as ever.
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