When pop music addresses itself to matters of the spirit, it usually does so in shorthand. "Love" can be code for sex, an expression of eternal devotion or just a songwriter's crutch.
Prince, an icon who has trafficked in his share of cliches, goes to great lengths to restore some meaning to the word "love" on his 14th album, a peerless collection of mature, progressive pop due in stores today. (The concept album's title, which Prince says he'll reveal later, is now a vaguely psychedelic hieroglyph modeled on the medical symbols for "man" and "woman.")
As always, he celebrates physical love with songs that describe in refreshingly uninhibited detail elaborate pleasure rituals between a man and a woman. And he champions a more spiritual love: Expressing his faith that a brighter day is coming, he commands the pulpit with enough conviction to rattle a drug dealer.
Whether he's out to raise the rafters, to find sanctuary in a cozy bed or -- more typically -- to do both at once, he does not take love lightly. "Don't use that magical, mysterious, intoxicating joy fantastic fascinating word called love unless u love me 2 the 9's," he warns on the extraordinary "Love 2 the 9's."
That should be clue enough that this is no ordinary paen to love. "Love 2" starts in a bubble gum Motown mode, with Prince rendering a Smokey Robinson-style vocal full of pain and writhing innuendo. Eventually, the key changes and the rhythm slows into a more urban back beat. Following a protracted
exchange between rapper Tony M., from Prince's band New Power Generation, and a woman named Arabia, the tightly wound rhythm guitar re-emerges, this time surrounded by horn catcalls and the chaos of a dance party. Jazz piano dances in the background. The melody of the chorus returns next,its rapidly changing harmony providing all the backdrop Prince needs for a few final falsetto ad-libs.
By the time the song is over, you not only know what Prince is aspiring to -- "the kind of love that takes over your body, mind and soul." You know how this particular love rush feels.
It's an amazing achievement. Most pop is content simply to describe a particular emotion; Prince finds ways to get it, whole, into music. Throughout this extraordinary album's 16 compositions -- which range from chilly one-chord dance drones to steamy torch ballads -- there's an integration of spirit, message and sound unsurpassed anywhere in pop music. Ever.
It hardly matters that the album's concept -- the story of a rock star who falls for an underage Middle Eastern princess, which is told mostly in between song vignettes featuring actress Kirstie Alley -- doesn't hold up. The music works on its own. In fact, the most thematic piece, an overwrought "Bohemian Rhapsody" homage called "3 Chains of Gold," is the album's low point.
Elsewhere, Prince shows that he's learned from last year's simplistic "Diamonds and Pearls." He's created music that reflects the focus of songs such as "Diamonds' " hit "Cream," but is considerably more adventurous. Daring, even.
Evidence of the New Power Generation's evolution is everywhere.
Of course, the drop-dead performances are in place because Prince's songs demand them. This is as masterful a blast of songwriting as popular music has seen in some time -- if "Purple Rain" was Prince's "Revolver," this album is his "Sgt. Pepper."