The pretty good news: "Parade," the new album by Prince and the Revolution, hit the stores yesterday. The not-quite-bad news: It's at best a mixed bag, with only a few truly memorable moments.
After the badly received neo-psychedelic expansions of last year's "Around the World in a Day," many old-line Prince fans must have been hoping that his hot new single, "Kiss," presaged a return to the funky dance floor esthetic of albums like "Dirty Mind" and "1999." So must his label, which sold only 3 million copies of "World" after moving more than 10 million copies of the sound track to "Purple Rain."
Both fans and label will undoubtedly get some satisfaction from the Minneapolis wunderkind's new effort (Warner Bros. 1-25395). But, despite the rekindling of Prince's seductive falsetto on a number of tunes, the album is neither the all-out return to R&B roots that some were predicting nor a steaming rock and funk express like "Purple Rain." There's nary a guitar solo to be heard on "Parade," but there is much to delve into. Slowly.
The album is the sound track to Prince's new film, the self-directed "Under the Cherry Moon" (due in July), so there's a good chance these songs will start making sense once we have an explication de texte. But where the material on "Purple Rain" stood quite effectively alone (though several songs gained immensely in affective power with context), the 12 cuts here seem not simply diverse but curiously unrelated, as if they were more the proof of Prince's continually expanding palette than of his singular vision.
There are '70s funk, '60s psychedelic collage, '50s cinema music, confessional ballads and maudlin cabaret tunes appropriate to the film's French setting. But outside of "Kiss," there's nothing on "Parade" that instantly grabs the listener's attention. There are a number of unsettling moments, mostly musical moods. Lyrically, there is none of the tension between spiritual and sexual compulsions that has marked so much of Prince's previous work. There is some minor erotica, some pulsating sensuality, but it's as if Prince is following up the idea that closed his last album: "Love is more important than sex."
The new album kicks off with "Christopher Tracy's Parade" (named after the character Prince plays in the film, it is one of two songs cowritten with his father John L. Nelson). A Beatlesque collage that falls between the brilliance of "Sgt. Pepper" and the indulgence of "Magical Mystery Tour," it's one of several cuts that are just too busy, too cluttered musically. Over the course of eight albums, Prince has restlessly explored any and all musics; his is very much a multifaceted musical sensibility. But his assimilations and expansions used to be clearer; increasingly, on record at least, they seem muddled. It's as if George Martin, Gil Evans and Phil Spector all had a shot at producing parts of "Parade," and no one gave anybody else the last word.
A similar clutter affects "I Wonder U"; its disquieting muffled bass lines, muted trumpets, flute accents and edgy melody don't seem to lead anywhere.
In terms of lyrics, there seems to be no middle ground on the album between the cryptic ("Christopher Tracy's Parade") and the explicit ("New Position"). The latter song is an obvious sex ditty that builds on 30 years of rock innuendo yet still seems curiously tame compared with ye olde Prince repertoire.
In terms of craft and production, "Kiss" is the most compelling cut on "Parade." Like "When Doves Cry," it is sparse, stripped down to basics with nothing but sharp percussion and brittle guitar behind Prince's celebration of his own raging libido. At least when divorced from its fairly lewd video, "Kiss" is exciting and funny ("Act your age, not your shoe size"), a sexy, sly funk workout that dares you to resist it.
There are several other cuts with falsetto vocals and dance floor appeal. "Anotherloverholenyohead" is sassy and clever in a Stevie Wonder manner, with a killer hook and irresistible rhythms. But despite their steady grooves, "Life Can Be So Nice" and "Mountains" are plodding, rhythmically busy throwaways that suffer from Prince's major weakness, a tendency to resort to naive, cliche'd lyrics ("love will conquer if you just believe").
On the other hand, "Girls and Boys" is sly and supple in the manner of "I Wanna Be Your Lover," a song with a wink, a honking baritone sax and a hilarious "French seduction" passage that will remind no one of Jane Birkin's "Je t'Aime (Moi Non Plus)."
There are other continental flavors on "Parade." The languid "Under the Cherry Moon" suggests Jacques Brel melancholy and Brecht/Weill irony in a decadent cabaret setting, with Prince actually crooning, melodramatically, "If nobody kills me or thrills me soon/ I'll die in your arms under the cherry moon." And with its accordion washes and relatively clever lyrics, "Do U Lie?" is part chanson, part vaudeville, positing Prince as the new Maurice Chevalier. Can't wait to see the video.
"Venus de Milo" is pretty (and pretty slight), half New Age, half neo-romantic incidental music. It anticipates the most intriguing song on "Parade," the elegiac, introspective "Sometimes It Snows in April." This song, which closes the album, is a remembrance of Christopher Tracy with mystic/religious implications that may or may not be explained by the movie.
Unlike in the rest of the album, Prince's voice here is mixed right on top of very simple acoustic piano and guitar. That yearning voice is immensely vulnerable, the melody haunting and the lyrics bittersweet; one suspects that "April" is the kind of ballad Prince is only now beginning to master.
"How can I stand to stay where I am," he sings on "Under the Cherry Moon." It's a line that applies to much of this album.