Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Rock Bottom: Prince

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not alw
ays agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

What better way to celebrate Prince Rogers Nelson's new release (Lotusflow3er - review coming soon) than to take an in-depth look at his lowest musical moment?

Not surprisingly, given how much product the Purple One has put out, there were several contenders for rock bottom.

The All-Music guide gave a low 2 star rating to three of his albums: 1978's For You, 1994's Come, and 1998's New Power Soul. Now For You was a debut album. By nature, these should be exempt for being rock bottom; an artist needs room to grow. Come was a collection of outtakes designed to fill a contract for a record company Prince hated, so it's got an excuse to be bad. That leaves us with New Power Soul, the onset of Prince's lost-in-the-woods period which continued with 1999's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and 2oo1's The Rainbow Children.

The fans on Amazon.com approved the choice. Peter Panagakos is quick to label it "THE WORST PRINCE ALBUM OF ALL TIME." Thomas Magnum agrees. M.Mc wears out the sad adjectives: disappointing, uninspired, languid, and boring.

AllMusic reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine doesn't spare any words justifying the low rating he gave the album. He says, "New Power Soul is a tight, focused record filled with energetic funk workouts and classy, seductive ballads." Wait, what? The worst thing Erlewine has to say about the album is that there aren't any clear singles. That, to me, is more of a three star problem.

Even so, Erlewine hits on a nugget of truth in his critical confusion when he says New Power Soul "cements Prince's evolution from groundbreaker to craftsman." And while that statement isn't the heart of the matter, it's definitely the liver or the kidneys. The bottom line is this: No song on New Power Soul has the visceral appeal of Prince's best work. There's nothing truly awful on the album, but there's nothing truly great either. The album is symptomatic of the illness Prince suffers as a prolific songwriter: A lack of self-editing. Or, as music journalist Toure puts it, his crap detector is on the fritz. To be a Prince fan is to celebrate excess and indulgence, to accept a certain amount of filler in exchange for brilliance. The problem with New Power Soul is that we get all of the former and none of the latter.

The record opens with the title track, a lite-funk workout that implores listeners to "get freaky / let the head bob" but the only truly notable moment in the song is when Prince performs an rap that awkwardly incorporates all of the album's song titles. Mad Sex follows, where Prince celebrates doing the nasty "until your tattoo's dizzy." He also adds that he wants to do it "till the animal prints u flaunt so lovely / r full of little bloody holes." I don't really know what that means, but it disturbs me deeply nonetheless. It's definitely the worst song on the album.

Next comes Until U're In My Arms Again, an orchestrated ballad that sounds like it could play over the credits of a romantic comedy you end up watching on TV on a Sunday afternoon out of sheer inertia. As stated, the album contains a large percentage of songs that are just kind of there, including Shoo-Bed-Ooh, Freaks On This Side, and Come On. Push It Up appropriates the superior Jam of the Year (from 1996's Emancipation). The One is an interminably slow ballad.

The only bright spots are When U Love Somebody, a joyful little trifle and (I Like) Funky Music. which resurrects some of the Artist's mid-'80s tricks, including prominent synth effects and the high-pitched Camille voice. Neither would stand out on a better Prince album, but here they might as well be When Doves Cry.

Finally, there's the bonus track Wasted Kisses, a great break-up tune that asks the choral question "why did I waste my kisses on you?". Unfortunately, if you listen to the actual CD, you have to wait through 38 five-second silent tracks to hear the song. This is one of my pet peeves, but the song is worth it in this case.

And that's it. Do I agree that New Power Soul is the worst Prince album ever? No, not really. For my money, The Rainbow Children, with its laborious between-song sermons, odd themes, and overlong songs, is a much worse listen. Even so, New Power Soul is a poster child for the mediocrity that has governed way too much of Prince's latter day career.

Author's Note: This is album review #214.

1 comment:

DDay said...

I agree with your views, mostly. Scrolling through the titles of this album, there are only a few tracks that ring a bell. I do remember to have liked Come On and The One, but they are indeed far from highlights in Prince's career (though The One is a great live-track).
On the other hand, I remember NewPowerSoul coming out in a 3CD box set (together with Larry Graham's GCS2000 and Chaka Khan's Come 2 My House) and this was for me the best of the 3.
Also, didnt it come out as 'New Power Generation' and not as a Prince album? That would line it up with the never-released (but brilliant) Goldnigga and Exodus. And again, compared to Exodus, this isnt half bad :-)
As for the worst Prince album, maybe you're right about Rainbow. Each 'bad' album has at least 1 brilliant track. Chaos and Disorder has I Like It There, Musicology has its title track, 3121 the fantastic Black Sweat and Planet Earth Guitar.
As for Lotusflow3r/MPLSound, I'm still looking...