Nature and critics abhor vacuums. By avoiding the press almost from the outset, Prince has left an interview void almost as large as fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan's. Writers have rushed to fill that information gap with theories, reflections and interpretations, but on the rare occasions when Prince grants the media access, it isn't always enlightening. In May, Anthony DeCurtis' Rolling Stone cover story included a few quotes from Prince admiring his band and a version of "D.M.S.R." the band played that night. But DeCurtis contemplates Musicology, Prince's new album, with no help from the artist formerly known as The Artist.
The initial flurry of writing about Musicology hailed it as a comeback, and for good reason. MTV's playing a video of the title song, and the record is in the Billboard Top 10, neither of which has happened to a Prince album in a while. It also sounds like a return to the musical values that were Prince's hallmark from Dirty Mind (1980) through Parade (1986) -- classic funk, immediate pop songs, guitar flash and New Wave synthesizer textures (think the beginning of "1999"). If there's any justice, the catchy "A Million Days" will follow "Musicology" on the charts and become one of his most popular ballads.
Prince himself seems to be looking back. In "Musicology," he sings about an "old school funk joint / 4 the true funk soldiers." Later in the song, he says, "Wish I had a dollar / 4 every time they say / don't U miss the feeling / music gave ya / back in the day?" before name-checking Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & the Family Stone and James Brown.
Calling the album a comeback gives order to what had become an unwieldy career. The word "comeback" suggests a story, and stories help shape events. As anyone who watches VH-1's Behind the Music knows, the comeback story features someone working his or her way up, becoming successful, becoming distracted, then becoming successful again by getting back in touch with who he or she is. That is also the rough plot of the 1984 film, Purple Rain, in which The Kid succeeds only after discovering himself, which includes embracing those around him. If you look at Prince's career this way, you conclude that he's successful again because he's learned valuable lessons.
But almost as soon as one set of writers dubbed Musicology a comeback, another set jumped to his defense. As Slate's Douglas Wolk writes, "Prince never genuinely went away. He tours regularly, and he's still a stellar live performer. The years 2002 and 2003 were the only ones since 1977 that he hasn't appeared on Billboard's album charts." Prince's longest gap between recordings was the two years between 1999 and Purple Rain. Wolk also points out how critics trotted out the "c" word to hail a number of Prince albums as far back as 1991's Diamonds and Pearls.
Needless to say, Prince shares Wolk's take; in a rare interview with the Associated Press, he says, "I would ask people who want to call this a comeback, where they think I'm coming back from?"
His question is a fair one. Still, it's hard to imagine him generating the kind of controversy he did with "Darling Nikki" anymore. Parents aren't terribly worried about their kids listening to Prince albums. Besides, now that Prince is a Jehovah's Witness, it's unlikely he'll make songs that would lead kids astray. He has even sworn off live performances of songs like "Erotic City" in accord with his religious beliefs.
He didn't go away, but by publicly fighting Warner Bros. in the mid-90s, he ended up in the same place Pearl Jam ended after fighting Ticketmaster. The band survived, but its momentum dissipated. In 1998, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready told Guitar World's Vic Garbarini, "We definitely lost some people because of that. I'm sure there are fans who would have preferred to pay the ticket price -- I've actually had people tell me that -- instead of having to go through alternative routes. Maybe we took that a little far."
Pearl Jam encountered a sad irony that bands almost always learn too late -- audiences like the righteous feeling of supporting a politically conscious band, but they like the good times that accompany hearing or seeing the band more. John Sinclair, poet and former WWOZ DJ, once admitted in conversation that when managing the MC5, he misjudged the political commitment of the band's fans. Seeing the group perform at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit and smoking dope in the parking lot made them feel radical. But ultimately, the weekend was for getting loaded and laid, and when being radical meant having a high ruined by police harassment, support dwindled.
Prince's issues with Warner Bros. were real. He wanted to own his master tapes and he wanted control over his release schedule. Always prolific, he wanted to put out music when it was fresh rather than waiting a year or so to release an album on the label's schedule. Warner Bros. shares a promotional template with other labels that involves putting out an album, working two or three singles off of it, then waiting the better part of a year to let interest grow in the next album. Such a schedule left Prince with a backlog of material, some of which came out on Crystal Ball and The Vault Old Friends 4 Sale. As collections of leftovers never meant to come out as they did, both releases are unfocused and make him seem like less of an artist.
Leaving Warner Bros. meant that Prince was free, but as with Pearl Jam's independence from Ticketmaster, a basic problem arose: If you work outside the system, how do you reach the people? In the end, he partnered with a number of labels to put out his albums, but because they had no long-term commitment to him or from him, he wasn't a priority. His records came out with minimal promotion and erratic distribution. It's no surprise that Prince's music from the 1990s was largely overlooked. The critical consensus is that it was a weak period, but it's hard not to wonder if that appraisal isn't a little lazy, dismissing someone who didn't seem to matter anymore.
In Sign 'O' the Times, a book-length analysis of Prince's 1987 classic, Michaelangelo Matos speaks well of the records, writing, "the pleasure of the Nineties material was in hearing him work within his self-made continuum." Prince does sound a little adrift at times, trying awkwardly to follow trends, fluctuating from the hard guitar of 1995's The Gold Experience to the softer R&B pop of the Girl 6 soundtrack a year later. Still, his craft and personality are always evident, and there are gems on every album.
Matos' observation applies to almost any artist who hangs around long enough to have a substantial career. At some point, he or she has made the career-defining albums, books, movies or paintings. In Prince's case, you could argue the crucial period extends from Dirty Mind to Sign 'O' the Times, but that doesn't mean the subsequent albums aren't good, only that they didn't break new ground for him. They are variations on his established themes, and buyers' levels of interest depend on how interested they are in the variations. There came a point where many suspected they weren't missing anything essential.
In all fairness, Prince didn't help. Once his changing looks and haircuts became news, he felt ephemeral. His unhappiness with his contract with Warner Bros. seemed odd coming so quickly on the heels of signing a $100 million contract with the company. He began appearing in public with "Slave" written on his cheek, and though he was at the mercy of Warner Bros.' plans, it was hard to think of a millionaire, much less a multimillionaire, as a slave to anybody.
More than that, writing on his face as a way of fighting back seemed weird. Changing professional names to get out of his publishing contract was an interesting strategy, but changing it to an unpronounceable symbol seemed weird. America forgives the drunken, the wanton and the blatantly dishonest, but the weird? Not typically.
The problem is that we don't understand weird, and that messes up the relationships we've conjured in our minds with our favorite stars. Who doesn't think if they could sit down with Dylan or Madonna and talk -- really talk -- they'd find they had a lot in common? Fans believe they know their favorite artists. But being weird screws up this identification. It's hard to understand someone whose name is something that can't be pronounced. Prince's comeback, if it's a comeback, is to a more affable Prince, the one who smiled a self-deprecating smile after "Baby I'm a Star" in Purple Rain. Like at that point in the movie, he doesn't seem to be fighting anymore. He's having fun. All accounts of Prince's performances on the current tour sound like a man enjoying being onstage. Unlike his 1990s albums that unconvincingly dabbled in rap and rave music, Musicology isn't the work of a man who's trying to prove he's relevant. He's even Prince again. He gave up the symbol in 2000 after his publishing contract with Warner/Chappell ended. Most importantly, he has found a way to let fans know he's likeable and wants to be liked. And that's something we all understand.
- In "Musicology," Prince himself seems to be looking back: "Wish I had a dollar / 4 every time they say / don't U miss the feeling / music gave ya / back in the day?"