By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
There may be no phrase more terrifying to musicologists circa 2007 than this: new Prince album.
Yes, the man is a master of the funk-rock domain, a virtuosic innovator, an undisputed pop genius and, at 49, one of the most electrifying live performers around. But in the latter stages of his career, he's become an alarmingly uneven recording artist -- a superlative musician who happens to be capable of cooking up absolute stink bombs in the studio. Prince redeemed himself some with consecutive comeback albums, 2004's "Musicology" and last year's "3121," but the air around him remains thick with the stench of earlier, execrable efforts, from "The Rainbow Children" to "Come."
One approaches a new Prince album, then, with extreme trepidation, along with the sort of giddy excitement that always accompanies a Prince event. And make no mistake: Today's U.S. arrival of Prince's new album, "Planet Earth," is an event. Of course, that's largely because the little purple polyglot's genius extends beyond the studio and stage into the world of marketing, as copies of "Planet Earth" were given away with the British national newspaper the Mail on Sunday. The controversial licensing agreement, for which Prince was paid an undisclosed amount, infuriated British retailers and generated a considerable amount of hype for an album that otherwise might have landed without much fanfare.
"Planet Earth" isn't exactly stop-the-presses great, but it isn't half bad either. More like 30 percent bad, 40 percent mediocre and 30 percent really, really good. (There are 10 songs on the album; you do the math.)
The album does not get off to a promising start, opening with the leaden, apocalyptic title track, a swelling six-minute piano anthem about the environment. The music is dreary and the lyrics lack finesse. "Fifty years from now / What will they say about us here?" Prince sings. "Did we care for the water and / The fragile atmosphere?" Not even a downpour of "Purple Rain"-ish guitar notes during a scorching solo can save the album's least likable song.
Prince is in serious mode, too, on preachy songs about religion ("Lion of Judah") and war ("Resolution"), neither of which is particularly effective -- unless your idea of a great antiwar song is to match a forgettable melody with lyrics like "The main problem with war is that nobody ever wins / The next generation grows up / And learns how to do it all over again." Give Prince a chance! (Or not.)
Better, by far, are some of Prince's come-ons -- in particular, "The One U Wanna C," a buoyant guitar-pop flirtation that suggests the artist covering pre-Mellencamp John Cougar, with the help of Prince's old collaborative duo, Wendy and Lisa. The shimmering slow jam "Somewhere Here on Earth" is also a standout, with Prince's ethereal falsetto floating through an exquisite melody over '70s-soul instrumentation. Lest we think we're in a time warp, Prince brings the lyrics into the modern era, singing: "In this digital age / You could just page me / I know it's the rage / But it just don't engage me / Like the face-to-face."
The dynamic, driving "Guitar" single (as heard on a Verizon Wireless commercial near you) is also a winner, featuring chiming riffs straight out of the U2 playbook and a sly centerpiece lyric that's pure Prince. "I love you," he sings. "But not like I love my guitar." Oh, snap!
Prince has mostly abandoned the funk workouts that drove "3121" for rock, soul balladry and pure pop. He also raps on "Mr. Goodnight," which is worth hearing once, if only to discover what it sounds like when an American artist drops "dandies" and "what say you" into a rap. (The short answer: strange.)
When Prince does deign to dabble in funk here -- on the disco stomp "Chelsea Rodgers" -- it sounds formulaic, almost like a musical afterthought. So "Planet Earth" isn't the funkiest place in the universe, but it's not quite the house of horrors we feared.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Guitar," "The One U Wanna C," "Somewhere Here on Earth"