t begins with that deep, varispeeded voice from those mid-70's Funkadelic records, here reciting some pseudo-mystical cult bullshit. Soon after, a swing groove on the ride cymbal signals the starting point, with a Rhodes piano comping gently on top, followed quickly by angular horns and a vocal ensemble that sounds every bit the modern day Fifth Dimension. Then, a loose, guitar solo alternating between chords and solo lines slithers in like Lotus-era Santana, the sound slowly being warped by ring modulation and echoplex effects. At last, the man's voice dramatically enters the mix, the sax wailing wildly and the gospel chorus chanting "Rise!" in ascending intervals that never seem to end. It's a startling leadoff cut that can lead you to only one conclusion: Prince is back.
The thing is, what I've just described is not the intro to the new Musicology—it's Prince's last record, 2001's The Rainbow Children. Never heard it? Well, neither did 98 percent of the population, and why would they have—stylistically all over the map, the record had lyrics that were as silly as they were impenetrable ("The opposite of NATO is OTAN"), the aforementioned basso-profundo narrator, and a "chosen ones"-type concept that made no sense to the non-Jehovah's Witness. While showy to the point of garish, The Rainbow Children was also indisputably the same Prince who delivered such brilliant flops as Around the World In a Day and Under the Cherry Moon fifteen years earlier, its potpourri of soul, cut-rate Broadway, Latin flavor and four decades of funk making clear that Prince's much-hyped talent was very much alive and kicking. It was just a little... weirder.
Cue Musicology, which comes on the heels of much-hyped appearances at the Grammy's and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony—the latter bizarrely spawning a guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that has garnered more ink than any guitar solo rightfully should in this day and age. Since that time, there have been pieces in Newsweek, the predictable four-star Rolling Stone review —hell, on the flight home a few weeks ago, I discovered a big feature about this record in the Southwest Airlines flight magazine, for God's sake, unsurprisingly relaying the same press agent's talking points all the other articles had included. The message: Prince is back—no prima-donna quirks, no veils, no "Slave" on the cheek, no Jehovah's Witness stories or vault releases. Nope, Prince is friendly again, showing up to play a few tunes on Ellen and, above all, exerting a little quality control.
The thing is: Prince has never had an ounce of quality control in his body. Whether it's quasi-religious fare (Around's "The Ladder"), thick-as-a-brick political rants (Controversy's "Ronnie, Talk To Russia") or, ahem, "ill-advised" forays into rap (the outright embarrassing "Jughead" from Diamonds and Pearls), the rule of thumb with Prince is that for every seven or eight remarkable cuts, there is always at least one appalling lapse in judgment. Admittedly, the ratio has shrunk in the leaner recent years, but for the better part of nearly three decades now, for all his success, concise statements just haven't been in the man. Much like Todd Rundgren, Sly Stone or any of the other auteurs from whom he has drawn considerable inspiration, Prince's brand of creativity has always been less something that flows than overflows.
Which makes Musicology that much more disappointing, as if the record company begged and pleaded for anything but another Rainbow Children. And boy did he deliver: not only is the product musically conservative, chocked full of soul ballads and tame funk workouts, there's nary a trace of the devilish sense of risk that has permeated even his worst material. Perhaps more worrisome is the fact that he's released a record virtually devoid of tunes. And the one song that does stick with the listener, "Life O the Party", tries so hard to sound like a good time (in Prince's backyard, no less), it's the exact opposite: a plodding bore.
"Life O the Party" is almost redeemed by a chorus that harkens back to the Wendy & Lisa days. But that's part of the problem: whether it's the reappearance of the squiggly synth from 1999's "Delirious", the "Adore"-esque soul of "Call My Name", or the all-too-literal clips of Prince's greatest hits at the end of "Musicology", the record's most immediately engaging moments become stale almost just as instantaneously. Elsewhere, tracks like "The Marrying Kind" and the bland pub rock of "Cinnamon Girl" (not the Neil Young track, sadly) limp rather than bop along.
Given such a docile assortment, you'd be excused if you became convinced that Musicology was, first and foremost, a studio executive's idea of what a "21st Century Prince Record" should be: "funky" and "soulful," just so long as it's not dirty. Considering the unprecedented lengths to which he's apparently gone to recall past glories here, Archeology might have been a more appropriate title.
It's a sad, if bizarre, turn of events for a guy who spent a decade trying to emancipate himself from the corporate drudgery of the major labels (Musicology is being distributed by Sony) only to voluntarily return on terms that could hardly be considered favorable. Only two years ago, his live act was so brimming with energy, creativity and inspiration, it seemed like it was four shows in one, with highpoints almost too numerous to recall: the robotically funky soundtrack to his film about blacks and post-9/11 airport security, the rant against Abraham Lincoln accusing him of racism, the half-hour's worth of solo gospel renditions of catalogue chestnuts. But with Musicology, it seems that spark is extinguished—at least momentarily. Maybe the record does represent a new direction for Prince after all: boredom.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2004-05-28