With almost thirty years in the business, it has become almost impossible for Prince to make any sort of defining statements with his new albums. He puts out new material regularly, and occasionally has a hit single, like last year’s great “Black Sweat.” But he’s never going to match the cultural omnipresence of his 80s heyday.
As his scorching, mesmerizing Super Bowl performance early this year showed, he can still bring it live, but nobody was asking him to bring his new material. Planet Earth isn’t going to redefine the Prince sound, and it’s not going to match Purple Rain. But it’s a great addition to his catalogue, delivering pretty much what you’d want from a Prince album. It’s by no means essential, but I can definitely recommend it.
The title track opens the album with a soaring mix of gospel, rock and pop as only Prince can do. The song begins small, then soars to a choir backed finale. The interplay of the chorus and Prince’s swelling guitar is fantastic, building to a climactic solo. Prince can still solo like nobody else in the game, and he just murders the end of this track. It’s a really strong opening, probably the album’s best track.
While some artists do everything they can to update and modernize their sound, this album is only a slightly more organic synth away from his 80s work. “Guitar” is a driving rock song that would blend right in on one of his 80 minute 80s opuses. Part of the problem with getting into Prince is the sheer amount of material. Most of his classic albums are double albums, and when you’re listening for that long, the songs just blend together. There’s a lot of classic material in 1999 and Sign O the Times. But as a new listener, it’s not so easy to pick up on all of it.
The reason Purple Rain was such a successful album is because of its nonstop great songs, with very little filler. Each track is a great blend of pop accessibility and instrumental weirdness, peaking on the epic title track, one of the all time greatest songs. That album came at a moment when Prince was everywhere. That the odd, disjointed Purple Rain movie could become a massive box office hit is testament to his drawing power, and regardless of the narrative incoherence, just watching his performances in that movie makes it easy to understand just why he’s become a legend.
But, being such a legend creates a legacy that can be impossible to live up to. It’s the same problem facing bands like The Rolling Stones and U2. When you’ve already got multiple greatest hits albums worth of classics, what’s left to prove? Only a select few want to hear your new music, and each album has to live up to an impossible legacy. Even if this album was as good as his 80s stuff, it couldn’t match our memory of what that album was.
I’m relatively new to Prince, still getting caught up on his catalogue, so I don’t have that reverence for his past work. Listening from that perspective, this album consistently matches the mid tier of his 80s work. There are some clunkers, like “Somewhere Here on Earth,” but songs like “The One U Wanna C” and “Mr. Goodnight” are thoroughly enjoyable. He’s still got a wonderful, unique voice, and I love the stylistic variation he features throughout the album. I didn’t like the slowed down R&B stylings of “Somewhere,” but he picks up the tempo with the next track, going to a sunny rock song.
Part of what makes Prince so great is the plain ridiculousness of some of his stuff. “Future Baby Mama” is full of popping porn style synth flourishes, which keep the loverman style vocal from getting too stale. The lyrics aren’t exactly great, but when he sings the chorus with that backing harmony, it sells it. “Chelsea Rodgers” is one of the best tracks on the album, with history spanning lyrics and a really tight horn line.
Ultimately, this is a really strong album. It’s not going to live up to Prince’s best work, but virtually nothing is. I’d love to see another album on the level of Purple Rain, but this is a great collection of songs and I’ll be listening to it for a good long time.