somewhere between media hacks rushing to pen the most ornate summary of Prince’s return to fame, a public who all but forgot him and a new distribution deal with Sony, it’s as if everyone wants Prince to succeed. Few artists seem to elicit such uniform goodwill. Even fewer artists rubbish hopes for their latest work so reliably, making each previous album seem less of a dud when the new one arrives.

Prince’s supposed return to form, or at least, his return to a major label, has been his most successful in an age. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be—he’s had enough practise—this particular homecoming being the latest in a mounting trail of comebacks that have been staged since the mid-nineties. Why Musicology has suddenly found such favour with press and public alike, when it’s merely another quarter-decent effort, has less to do with how it sounds than an astutely timed strategy on its creator’s part to recover some of the popularity his recent self-released material hasn’t been able to. Or, judging from the unashamed veneer of nostalgia coating these songs, to court old fans who understandably lost interest years ago.

In Prince’s own words, this is a “pop” album. What that might mean to him nowadays is anybody’s guess. Excluding artists that pay him idolising lip service (D’angelo), imitate him (Andre 3000) or cover his songs (Alicia Keys), it’s not clear if there’s anyone Prince listens to that he didn’t as a teenager (well, except cutting edge rappers like Doug. E Fresh and Chuck D).

But, as he’s been telling journalists for years, when Prince wants new music, he makes it himself. Which might be nothing more than a tongue-in-conceited-cheek aside, but it shows. There’s nothing here that fans won’t have heard before, which might be fine if there was some stronger sign of the songcraft that made his name, but Musicology contains only the usual glimpses of brilliance and surprise. And nothing to sufficiently pin it together. It might make a better crack at accessibility than 1999’s Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, but it’s hard to tell if Prince has simply lost his initial spark, or if he can’t be bothered to channel it.

It’s probable that he’s suffered lapses in quality and employed poor judgment in the past fifteen years, but rarely has he proved so disconcertingly safe, boring or banal. The last time our elfin hero seemed to have anything of much resonance to say, even if the religious content rubbed most people the wrong way, was 2001’s The Rainbow Children, and before that, Emancipation.

So, at the menopausal age of 45, what ‘pop’ means to Prince is a galaxy away from what it did in his twenties. Then, it was a vehicle to get away with whatever he wanted—to make his unpredictable, avant-garde, idiosyncratic leanings easily accessible by astutely housing them in perfect pop-song concision. Now, it appears to mean something tepid, restrained, and perhaps worst of all, embarrassing. It might be befitting for a man of his age, but never has Prince sounded so fuddy-duddy.

It starts bearably enough, with Prince in search of a song, thumbing through his James Brown-by-numbers rule-book on the title track. The appropriation of post-Jimmy Nolen funk rhythm guitar was always one of the most compulsive elements in Prince’s work (see: “Controversy”, “Housequake”) but here, the licks are made into a polite Radio 2 notion of funk, the type of clinical JB-pastiche you might hope to hear in a coffee shop extension of a book shop, where the staff wear woolen cardigans, even in the summer. Exhibiting none of the intensity that such a song requires, it’s carried over to the mind-numbingly banal lyrics, symptomatic of what’s to follow. With fuzzy references to Sly Stone, James Brown and Earth Wind & Fire, Prince asks “don’t you miss the feeling music gave you back in the day?” It’s not what he meant, but he could quite easily be talking about himself.

Things don’t get much better as the song closes with radio-tuned snippets of some of his hits (it could have been worse, this CD could have come with a best-of bonus disc). “Illusion, Coma, Pimp and Circumstance” is a leaden, self-consciously quirky diatribe seemingly pivoted around the less than novel ‘artist as whore/industry as pimp’ metaphor. All of which might be fine if it the sub-George Clinton parable comprised some sort of actual song-formulation, instead of a vacuous, plastic, would-be-party funk jam that goes all of nowhere.

The tuneless “Life O the Party” fares little better. Featuring a warm impression of the Neptunes staccato drum thuds and a Black Eyed Peas-like sub-dancehall middle section, Prince comes up thin in the way of anything melodically or rhythmically memorable. Still, fun is to be had as he aims to convince of some amazing shindig he’s holding, the line “we put the ‘I’ in fine” perhaps the winner of the shockingly clichéd (where did Prince’s wit go to?), cringe inducing lot. For all his rhetoric about the brainless state of modern music, it’s odd that Prince didn’t see fit to up this aspect of his game.

Sticking with the inanity, “Dear Mr. Man” shows Prince to be as charmingly naive (or just plain dumb) as he was back in 1981 when he insisted that “Ronnie Talk To Russia” “before it’s too late”. Which is comforting in a way, to know that even if it might not seem so on the outside, he’s still the same clumsy political commentator underneath it all.

The ballads don’t fare much better, “Call My Name” being little more than a dreadfully drippy stock seduction-jam. Apart from a few oddly placed war references, all it seems to be about is that Prince likes his lover to call his name a lot, something he manages to bang on about for far longer than necessary. “On The Couch” is a bit of an improvement, a southern styled organ churning exercise, with more coquettish phrasing than we’ve heard from Prince in some time. But the overwrought teen operatic-R&B-rock melodrama of “If Eye Was The Man In Your Life” captures hilariously bad advice on the need to “get your mack on” and a “chocolate barracuda” while the Mick Hucknall sleaze of “I’m going to lay her “cross my piano stool and sing to her” on “The Marrying Kind” fulfils all sorts of embarrassing criteria for anyone who enjoyed Jordan Knight’s sop-pop “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” remake.

Like so many Prince albums in the last decade, Musicology is more eager to please than it’s genuinely able to. Rather than be comfortably eclectic, it’s the product of someone stuck in a paisley genre-conveyor belt that rotates according to a depressingly half-hearted program, not bona fide inspiration. In short, it has as much thematic or consistency as a dozen Now That’s What I Call Music volumes being played at random. Expertly performed and immaculately produced it might be, but with such woefully average material, Musicology is a greater feat of spin doctoring than craft. It’s encouraging to think that Prince might be egged on to some sort of creative rebirth by his new public fortune, but this isn’t it.

Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan
Reviewed on: 2004-05-27
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