Ever since "Purple Rain," the album and movie that made Prince a star, his fans have been waiting for the work that would take him (and them) to the next stage.
But instead of a move forward -- an album that would improve upon "Purple Rain" the way it refined the breakthroughs of "Dirty Mind" and "1999" -- all we got were missteps. It was almost as if Prince were walking away from the promise of his early work, for each new album brought a new wrinkle of weirdness, from the psychedelic silliness of "Around the World In a Day" to the inscrutable spirituality of "Lovesexy."
Well, the good news about "Diamonds and Pearls" (Paisley Park 25379, arriving in record stores today) is that it avoids the oddness that has marred the singer's post-"Purple Rain" output. There are no conceptual conceits here, no self-indulgent soundscapes or cryptic references to "Spooky Electric."
Instead, the strangest thing about the album is its hologram cover, showing Prince in the embrace of two young ladies (Diamond and Pearl, who else?). For the most part, its focus is strictly musical, with the emphasis on inventive melodies, supple grooves and solid playing.
It would be a terrific album, except for one thing: It's boring.
Sure, the album has its moments. "Thunder" starts things off with a lively, minor-key gospel chorale catchy enough to evoke the upbeat energy of "Let's Go Crazy," "Strollin' " boasts a light, jazzy mood and some interesting interludes, and "Gett Off," despite its convoluted cadence and torturous double-entendres, is indeed funky enough to make you "pump it like you want somebody."
Moments, though, are about all this album offers. While it's playing, it sounds wonderful, and the intricate interplay of the New Power Generation -- Prince's current backing band -- is nothing short of astonishing. On a musical level, the album is a gem, showing just how much musical invention can be crammed into a funk groove or pop ballad.
But on a compositional level, "Diamonds and Pearls" is just cut glass and paste. For all their obvious craft, there isn't much that's memorable about the songs here; after playing the album a half-dozen times, it's hard to bring even a couple of these tunes to mind.
Not that many are worth the effort. "Daddy Pop," for instance, is a great excuse for a rhythm-section workout, but a lousy excuse for a song, consisting of a chorus and little else, while "Cream," the current single, is simply a rewrite of the T. Rex hit "Bang a Gong (Get It On)."
Then there's "Jughead," a half-baked "dance craze" number that's long on energy but short on sense; do you think somebody ought to tell Prince that the hip-hop phrase "Get stupid!" isn't meant to be taken literally?
Admittedly, these are minor quibbles compared to some of the problems exhibited by albums like "Lovesexy" and "Sign 'o' the Times," which went completely off the deep end. "Diamonds and Pearls" may be boring, but at least it's listenable.
Still, wouldn't it be nice if a Prince album had more going for it than that?