Those millions of Prince fans who started rushing record stores yesterday for his seventh record -- 3 million of them have been shipped -- will undoubtedly be surprised or confused by "Around the World in a Day."
Surprised because the album is so thoroughly different from "Purple Rain" and confused because it seems to abandon "Purple Rain's" 1980s dance-floor esthetic for a '60s-derived sound.
It's an avowedly psychedelic album. The cover, the music, the lyrics, the typeface, the very vibe of it provide "Around the World in a Day" with the same richness, the same sonic depth, the same ambition and even the same unevenness as the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." If nothing on the album approaches the brilliance and passion of "When Doves Cry," there are many exquisite moments to obscure the occasional overreaching.
"Around the World in a Day" (Warner Bros. 25286-1) was completed before Prince announced that he was forsaking live performance, and the album ends with a typically enigmatic dialogue between the sudden star and God. The song, "Temptation," was featured in some of Prince's concerts and is a discourse on the joys thereof.
"I'm talking about the kind of temptation that'll make you do things, I'm talking about sexual temptation," Prince confesses in a spoken dialogue. "You have to want it for the right reasons," counsels a lordly voice.
"I'm sorry, I'll be good," says Prince. "This time I promise. Love is more important than sex. I understand. I have to go now. I don't know when I'll return. Goodbye."
The sin and salvation dichotomy has marked Prince's work for years. "Temptation" itself is heavy-metal blues somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Blue Cheer. It's the hardest song on the album, and a decided contrast to what precedes it, "The Ladder," a gospel song that is half narration, half exultation. It is also one of two songs on the album Prince cowrote with his father, John L. Nelson. These songs suggest that the clash between spiritual and sexual compulsions has provoked a transcendent obsession: "Everybody's looking for the ladder . . . everybody's looking for the answers . . . U have 2 climb all of the steps in between."
Not all of "Around the World's" nine songs carry that much baggage, though there is an almost naive optimism to some of them. The title cut, which opens the record, is a Middle-Eastern tinged variant on the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," with Prince's invitation to float downstream being: "Open your heart, open your mind/ A train is leaving all day/ a wonderful trip through our time/ and laughter is all u pay." The exuberant rhythms and the song's instruments (oud, cello, finger cymbals) create a pop structure as radically different as "When Doves Cry."
The invitation to travel is, of course, different: what the Beatles offered was a passive process of self-evolution and what Prince offers is Prince as conductor on his particularly purple magical mystery tour.
The next stop is the irresistibly lilting "Paisley Park," as identifiable a neighborhood as "Penny Lane" or "Strawberry Fields," with Prince sounding uncannily like John Lennon trying to single-handedly revive Haight-Ashbury's Summer of Love ("Admission is easy, just say u believe and come to this place in your heart/ Paisley Park is in your heart.")
"Raspberry Beret" ends the Beatle strains with some string section undercurrents that show its connections to both "Doves" (the rhythm) and "Take Me With U" (the flowing melody). Prince even gets in a subtle nod to Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground in the middle verse.
To these ears, the album's best song is sandwiched between the psychedelic pastiches. "Condition of the Heart," on which Prince plays all the instruments and overlays some vocals, is a gorgeous introspective ballad about missed communications and lost love. His voice has a heart-rending blueness that sometimes gets overwhelmed by his material: here it is gently buffeted by piano and self-sustained harmony, a melancholy instrument delivering its bittersweet realizations.
One of the more interesting songs on "Around the World" is "America," which appears to be the kind of patriotic statement that even a president could get behind. The chorus echoes "America the Beautiful" and points to both the power of God and the promise of its children concluding, "America, America, keep the children free." He sketches a black woman living in a "1-room jungle monkey cage/ Can't get over, she's almost dead/ She may not be in the black/ but she's happy she ain't in the red."
Maybe they'll play this one at a political convention.
There are some misses on "Around the World." "Tamborine," is rhythmically complex without being particularly interesting, and "Pop Life" never matches a compelling melody to some hard-nosed and nonsympathetic lyrics about the dangers of seeking excuses instead of resolutions to life's challenges ("Is the mailman jerking u around/ did he put your million dollar check/ in someone else's box"). Even "The Ladder" and "Temptation" fail to match their ambitions..
With no obvious dance tracks, this is a long way from the self-centered, sexually explicit, feet-on-the-dance-floor urgency of "Purple Rain." Instead of taking one step forward, Prince has taken two: one to confirm creative courage at a time when he could easily repeat himself, and the other to confirm a continuously expanding musical imagination.
Comparison to "Sgt. Pepper" also serves to explain Prince's withdrawal from concerts. The sound is so lush, rich, detailed, complex and personal that it would be almost impossible for him to recreate it on stage. In that context, it's not surprising that there is no searing guitar solo to match those heard on "Purple Rain," or that Prince's soaring falsetto swoops, a trademark of his unbridled passion, are less evident.
This is a mind album, like "Sgt. Pepper," and Prince tends to leave clues rather than evidence. For all its psychedelic trappings, and for all his reputation as a sexual obsessive, there is precious little advocacy of anything except self-awareness and self-definition. That may be a reflection on Prince and his own set of changes; it has certainly provoked one of the most intriguing albums in years.