Part of the problem with trying to keep up with the career of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is that it's so easy to lose the plot.
Start with the name. Ever since he decided to retire the name "Prince" in favor of an unpronounceable icon of his own devising, even his fans haven't known what to call him. TAFKAP? Symbol Man? Mr. Nelson? Then there are his business dealings, which, from his announced retirement from recording a few years back, to the collapse of his Paisley Park empire, to the spat with Warner Bros. that had him shaving the word "slave" into his beard, make Bosnian politics seem simple.
It's enough to make you wonder why you even bothered -- until you hear something as wonderful as "The Gold Experience" (Warner Bros./NPG 45999, arriving in stores today).
Like the albums that earned Prince his reputation, "The Gold Experience" operates on a level so far removed from the well-crafted mediocrity of most pop music that it seems unfair to mention it in the same breath. If it were a matter of catchy tunes and infectious funk, "The Gold Experience" would stand as the man's best work since "Purple Rain," but the quality of the playing makes even that album seem tiny.
Listening to the way TAFKAP and his band, the NPG, work together here, it's hard not to think of James Brown with the JB's, the Rolling Stones with Mick Taylor, or the Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock -- ensembles that fused flawless musicianship with a singular creative vision. There's such a jaw-dropping vitality to the playing that the music, from the stabbing brass and searing solos of "Billy Jack Bitch" to the lush, shimmering textures of "Gold," seems almost tangible as it surges from the speakers.
As full-band grooves go, it's hard to top. When the band kicks into the cowbell-driven funk of "Endorphinemachine," it's almost like being caught in a wave -- it takes more effort to resist than it does to give in and surf its roiling rhythms and surging chorus. That's the kind of vibe fans dream of catching in concert; to find on album, ready for instant replay, seems almost miraculous.
Even better, there's nothing the least bit self-indulgent about the music. Forget the metaphysical silliness and muddled dramatics that made "Parade" and "Lovesexy" so hard to follow; this time around, Symbol Man has come to play. And play he does. Between the itchy, metal-edged funk of "319" (dig that Nine Inch Nails-style bellydance bit) and the soaring, Santana-esque finale to "Shhh," he handles his guitar more masterfully than he has in years. Could it be that he's finally comfortable with his status as guitar hero?
Granted, there are aspects to the album that may tarnish some listeners' appreciation of "The Gold Experience." Mr. Nelson is still trying to come across as street-tough, and that leads to some ugly and gratuitous use of the n-word. How can he hope to lead us to the kind of transcendence promised in "We March" and "Gold" when he relies on such ignorant wordplay?
Then there's the sex stuff. Although S-man insists, at the end of "Shhh," that "sex is not all I think about," you wouldn't know it from the lyrics here. But being sex-obsessed is only half of it. Take the disquieting "[eyeball] Hate U," which finds He-Whose-Name-Cannot-Be-Pronounced wishing he could tie up his ex-lover and force himself upon her in hopes of "showing her how good it used 2 be." (Makes you wonder what turned her off in the first place, doesn't it?)
Or how about the album's opening track, a song that seems to consider itself a celebration of femininity despite the fact it boasts a chorus more suited to Hustler than a family newspaper? Does this guy ever spend time in the real world?
Probably not. But then again, few people grounded in the real world could have managed anything as sweetly sincere as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," or as spiritually uplifting as the reincarnation song "Dolphin." And because "The Gold Experience" offers more magnificence than missteps, it hardly seems fair to complain that No-Longer-Prince doesn't always come (politically) correct. After all, who listens to him for his lyrics?