Taking us back to `the day'

After years, Prince gives fans new music they can embrace


April 20, 2004|By Tom Moon | Tom Moon,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Right from the start of Musicology, on two party tracks that could have been written any time during the past 25 years, Prince hammers home his theme: He's going to take listeners back to "the day."

"Wish I had a dollar for every time we say, `Don't you miss the feeling music gave you, back in the day?'" he chortles on the title track, a rumbling James Brown-style jam dedicated to the "true funk soldiers."

Before the next song can begin, Prince twirls the knob on a staticky radio, where, naturally, every station is playing one of his classics. Then comes "Illusion, Coma, Pimp and Circumstance," a lust-and-money allegory not unlike those that lit up Lovesexy back in 1988. And in a sudden stop-time shout, the Minnesota iconoclast affects an old man's voice to boast, "Boy, I was fine back in the day."

Which day? Anyone around in the early '80s - when "Little Red Corvette," "1999," "Kiss," "When Doves Cry" and "When U Were Mine" were everywhere - knows the answer to that.

What's remarkable, and unexpected, is that after more than a decade of indulgent music-making heard by a dwindling audience, the 45-year-old auteur is fine once more. With the surprising Musicology (Columbia) and its live-performance corollary, a hits-for-the-last-time tour that has him selling out arenas again after nearly a decade, Prince couldn't be hotter.

The renewed interest in the Jehovah's Witness convert, who has retired some of his more salacious tunes, is largely thanks to the act of contrition he began earlier this year. He strayed, then saw the light. And now the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is begging for another chance.

With Musicology, Prince does what his many detractors - pretty much the entire community of critics, radio tastemakers, and pop-culture gatekeepers - believed was beyond his present-day capability: He crafts a disciplined pop-rock-soul statement that's fun from start to finish and doesn't require a fan-club decoder ring to appreciate.

It's got crazily catchy hooks and moments of unexpected euphoric bliss. It takes swipes at Prince's rival in weirdness, Michael Jackson ("My voice is gettin' higher and I ain't never had my nose done," he sings in "Life `O' the Party"). And it delivers slivers of showstopping guitar cast in contrasting shades, from the metallic crunch of "Cinnamon Girl" to the liquid jazz that enriches the gentle bossa "What Do U Want Me 2 Do?"

In songs that resist overt religious proclamations and outright booty calls while flirting, as ever, with both extremes, Prince comes close to the fireworks-erupting energy of old. He looks to his Purple Rain heyday, then back farther to display a formidable command of music history. There's a minute of ripping avant-jazz swing appended to the otherwise uneventful "If I Was the Man in Ur Life," and those organ chords of "On the Couch" align with the Sam Cooke gospel phase.

But he never succumbs to outright nostalgia. His vamps are as dense and culturally diverse (sitar over here, turntables there) as those of Outkast. His melodies are endlessly inventive when compared with the drooled sweet-nothings of the celebrated neo-soul crooners.

After years of struggle, Prince has decided that revisiting the past doesn't have to be a craven glory-grab. You hear the razor-sharp sounds, and fleeting mention of "terror wars," and you begin to think that the old purple eccentric hasn't lost it after all. Then you hear him utter the rallying cry "Watch me now," and for all his romantic, self-referential yammering about "the day," it's clear that this guy has his feet planted firmly in the present.

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