Sunday, November 04, 2007

Kat's Korner: Planet something, but it's not earth

Kat: Jazz great Charles Mingus' "If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats" comes to mind when listening to Prince's Planet Earth. Were Prince a gunslinger, the corpses of Ready for the World, Justy Timberlake and a host of others would be littering the highways of America. So maybe it's about time that Prince copied Prince?

Track one, the title track, seems exceedingly familiar musically to anyone who's listened to Parade so much so that you may feel the CD needs cleaning because it appears to be jumping back and forth between "Sometimes It Snows in April" and "Mountains" with "Christopher Tracy's Parade" for the instrumental break before it returns to the back and forth interplay of the first two songs. What's he singing? Who knows?

It's not that I can't hear the lyrics he's singing, it's that who knows what the hell "so it is written, so it is done" is supposed to mean in terms of the environment. "Planet Earth" is his big environmental song -- the album's big song, in fact, with a searing guitar solo -- but in terms of point of view or even a belief, it's a failure.

"Guitar" follows, one of the album's hits and for good reason. You're not noticing that, from line to line, Prince's eco-religion-sexual brew doesn't blend. "I love you baby, but not like I love my guitar" isn't dense, obscure or grafted. It's the most straight forward of Prince's recent singles and possibly his most straight forward single since 1991. On the verses, on the choruses, he comes off like Lou Reed vocally which isn't a bad thing, as any who remember his flirtations with rapping will know. He's chanting, not singing and for radio play of the moment, it's worthy. It won't enter his canon but it provides real life to the album. Which is why "Somewhere Here on Earth" is such a disappointment.

Not only is it the second longest track on the CD, it shows up right after "Guitar" gets things cooking. In his original run at Warner Bros. a track like this would have closed one of the two sides. Though not a bad song, it's a badly sequenced song. Vocally, he seems to be emulating Annie Ross which isn't a bad thing either; however, I don't know that the world's been waiting for Prince to bend vocal notes or double up the vocal tempo on a second verse.

Having killed the life of the album, he now offers up "The One U Wanna C" which should have followed "Guitar" and is a strong track. Again, he's not singing. He's shouting. Which did leave me wondering if Prince only sings on ballads these days? "Future Baby Mama" came up on the road three weeks ago. I was talking music with a student following the Iraq discussion and he wondered why Prince was promoting violence? I was confused and he explained, "That song, 'Hit Your Baby's Mama'." That mishearing is actually far more interesting than the song itself.

"Future Baby Mama" clarifies the problems with Prince's career today more than anything else. Like every other song of the last few years, Prince seems to believe the audiences see him as a high school student. Or maybe that's just how he wants to be seen? He'll be forty next June and there is something incredibly sad about the fact that, lyrically, he remains an adolescent. Like too many of the males before him, he seems intent on posing as James Dean well past middle age. It's an embarrassing pose.

It leads to lyrics, such as the ones in "Somewhere Here On Earth," that really don't work for adults. Years ago, Rick Springfield tried to follow up his one deserved hit ("Jesse's Girl") with a bunch of crap including a song entitled "How Do You Talk To Girls?" and Prince appears to be working the same terrain. To buy into "Somewhere Here On Earth" or "Future Baby's Mama," you really have to be just starting your adult life or stupid because the idea of Prince going any length of time without a woman or entering his first love affair is just laughable.

Of all of the singer-songwriters of that genre, only Carly Simon repeatedly works the concept of perspective into her lyrics. Her male peers seem convinced that, though they've got a canon of love songs, they can keep singing about falling in love for the first time.

The only thing resembling personal perspective on the CD is the highly embarrassing "Mr. Goodnight" where Prince sings about himself to a woman waiting in his "courtyard." Relatable? Not at all. And that's before he starts his bad boast of limos and being known all over the world. It does sound, unlike the other lyrics, realistic. Who couldn't picture Prince checking with a date for the evening to ensure that their outfits match? But it's a jarring moment as he suddenly (and thankfully) leaves the Saved By The Bell years to become an adult with experiences (bad ones, including, apparently, watching the lame Chocolate as foreplay) and a huge crush on himself. Though not five minutes-plus, the song seems oh-so-much-longer due to his spoken word at the end.

"All the Midnights in the World" sounds like a blend of vintage Dionne Warwick and Laura Nyro initially and then he starts going on about "children" and "spiritual food" and you wonder exactly what world Prince exists in these days?

"Chelsea Rodgers" ("this for Jersey, right here") pumps musically but "try to catch her if you can" applies to the meaning of the song as well. Prince's initial spoken words appear to condemn the loss of role models but "go on, Chelsea" appears aimed at a woman who doesn't eat meat and reads books. If this is a unique character in the Prince universe, he should come out to the Bay Area and spend a week with me while I introduce him to about a half-million similar women. Chelsea "kept her tears in a bottle" and I'm not sure how that, or talking to the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, is supposed to measure up to MLK?

"Lion of Judah" covers the terrain that has gone from symbolic and poetic to dead on the nose (and unlistenable) since Sign of the Times' "The Cross." This time Prince climbs on to the cross of the heart with a lot of Old Testament shout outs. It's weaker Stryper and only for those attending the Church of Prince each Sunday morning.

"Resolution" ends the album and for any who haven't already given up, it's the best song of the collection. He starts with something resembling vocal music. He's not up in that ridiculous falsetto that even Smokey Robinson wouldn't touch and he's not shouting. He's making some musical noise. Then the song kicks in and he's actually singing a non-ballad. He's dropped the sweaty-school boy pose -- a huge relief -- and is telling us the main problem with war "is that nobody wins/ The next generation grows up/ And learns to do it all over again." It is the best song on the album -- musically, vocally and lyrically. But you had to sit through nine songs prior and most of them wouldn't have been dubbed 'good' even in the lean years (Crystal Ball).

In England, this album was given away for free and maybe that reflects his belief that it's not solid enough to expect people to pay for it? Certainly the packaging is an embarrassment and anyone thinking about downloading it but fretting over the loss of any bonuses should cease worrying immediately. The cheap package is so cheap that it doesn't even include a song listing. The font is embarrassing not just because The Matrix is hardly of the moment but also because it makes much of the (very basic) album credits unreadable. Sam Jennings receives credit for the package design, but I'd argue this stiff little carboard means he should receive blame. Along with a lame cover that harkens back to Diamonds & Pearls (hold it one way, it's a symbol! tilt it and it's Prince!). Open it up and you've got picture of Prince looking like a cast member of West Side Story in a 70s track suit and the CD. Lift the CD and you can try to read the album credits on the page beneath. The back cover's an embarrassing attempt of the solar system that wouldn't qualify for "good" if a middle school student produced it.

It would be easy to write off Prince and he has been many times before. "Resolution" and "The One U Wanna C" suggest there's still art and the ability to connect. The former especially suggests he could yet rival Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye for a socially conscience work that perfectly captures the times we are living in. But that would require him and the fans admitting he is not 17-years-old and that he has a (long) romantic history. It would require him realizing that Warner Bros. was right in one regard: Everything he records does not require a release.

I say that as someone firmly on Prince's side when he changed his name and broke with Warner Bros. The albums had been so wonderful -- some of them classics to this day -- and how dare a label hold up his best stuff? Then came the self-releases such as Crystal Ball which had about one dics' worth of listenable songs -- one disc' worth provided you got the three-disc set with the bonus fourth disc entitled The Truth. From those four disc, you had enough to construct a one hour mix tape that was relatively strong. As I waded through that period, I was willing to assume he'd lost a bit of his muse and that might have been part of the aftermath of the ugly battle with Warner Bros. Then came The Vault: Old Friends For Sale providing fans with a look at just what Warner Bros. wasn't releasing "beginning 1/23/85 and ending 6/18/94" -- as the liner notes proclaimed. Ten songs and nothing worth hearing let alone ending a contract over.

Were it not for "Resolution," I'd argue Prince's best days were long, long behind him. Even "The One U Wanna C" owes more to the past than anything going on musically today. But maybe the problem with Prince's musical output is, heresy though it will be to some, the point Warner Bros. was making over a decade ago? Maybe he really does need a label that says, "No, this isn't up to releasing?"

For me, the run of album classics begin with Controversy (1981) and end with Sign of the Times (1987). By Lovesexy, he's stumbling. He gets back on track with a commercial sound but the art continues to flag. And that has been the pattern ever since. "The One U Wanna C" is the best example of that. It's catchy as hell but, listening, I feel a little like a forty-year-old in the late 70s, pointing to "Grease" and saying, "See, Frankie Valli is back!" Yeah, it sounds good but, like Valli's comeback, does it really say anything worth hearing? Nope. It's really this year's "Grease is the word that you heard . . ."

As an adult and a longterm fan, the only thing I can point to with pride is "Resolution." An album that used that as a starting point (instead of a closer) might really mean Prince is back. Until then, I guess we'll all have to settle for faux excitement that, in 2007, he can 'rock' the world with a Superbowl performance of 60s chestnuts and three tracks from his 1984 soundtrack. The copycats, if anyone notices, are picking the bones from those years, from 1980 to 1987. No one's rushing to emulate Prince beyond that. Imitation is a form of flattery only in that it's copying something significant. On the imitation scale, Prince hasn't done an album in 20 years that's been worth flattering.