ver the shape-shifter, Prince Rogers Nelson makes his most outrageous move yet. Lots of fans grumble about the lengths to which the artist formerly known as the Artist will go to ensure listenability. No doubt about it: distributing an album with The Mail is a masterstroke.
A shame, then, we're not discussing another Parade or, hell, The Gold Experience, but lately Prince puts his talent into recording albums and his genius into marketing them. In 2004, for example, he included Musicology with the price of a concert ticket and forced the RIAA to like it. Although he's released plenty of indifferent albums since 1988's Lovesexy, this is the second time he's pulled a Steel Wheels: recording an album as an excuse to tour (like Steel Wheels' "Mixed Emotions," the mildly compelling nostalgia of Musicology's title track, the first single, embraced dubious notions of musical solidarity). 3121 was a little better: he was studying the Billboard Top Ten ("Black Sweat") as much as he was copying himself (the title track). Planet Earth marks a slight improvement on that one, which is progress of a sort, but incremental advances like this almost guarantee that the marketing hoo-hah will get more attention anyway.
However, since this is Prince and not another middle-aged white songwriter/guitarist he'll force us to listen to Planet Earth for three tracks so ebullient that you understand why he records albums as excuses to tour. "Chelsea Rodgers" might be the best use of a brass section in the Prince songbook since "Housequake," and the most compelling evidence that witnessing for Jehovah hasn't stunted his imagination; mitigating this story of a reformed libertine with a piano part swiped from Sylvester's "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" is the kind of perversity we used to take for granted from him. He doesn't sound crabby; he's reminding himself that even God-fearing wretches like him need parables to explain himself to the rest of us; that Sylvester could hear gospel in disco. The irresistible bitchery of his guitar work on "Lion of Judah" redeems the Bible-adducing triumphalism of its chorus. Finally, the good will Prince has accumulated doesn't clarify the lyrical equivocations of "Resolution" (the musical ones though—like the concluding synth swoop—are a delight), but if you want anti-war slogans go listen to Neil Young.
If smugness erodes the empathy he extends to the putative love objects that populate Planet Earth's fair-to-good ballads, his skill compensates. Thanks to Jesus and a lifetime of teetotaling, his voice remains impossibly supple, and as elastic as he thinks his dick is. So is, of all things, humor. Unlike R. Kelly, Ne-Yo can tell the difference between smarm and charm—to be fair, it's Kells' confusion that makes him intermittently excellent—but he couldn't put over pillow-talk piffle like "Future Baby Mama" like Prince can (not enough to convince you that it won't join "Call My Name" and "Beautiful, Loved, Blessed" in second-single limbo, mind).
Speaking of smarm-vs-charm, "I love you, babe, but not like I love my guitar" is the asshole come-on he's been trying to write since Controversy, and more devastating for being apt. Just don't remind the little guy of his lifetime of broken promises. Listening to "Guitar" brings to mind the seven-minute entreaty in which he let his axemanship show what his heart couldn't, even when this entreaty was called, simply, "I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man." That song was a lifeline, while "Guitar" comforts itself with being a manifesto. Manifestos can incite passions, but the chance always exists that you're speaking in an empty room.
Planet Earth may, like 3121, top the charts. Credit those amazing live shows and what he signifies in pop culture; everybody likes the idea of Prince. Not exactly encouraging for an artist this fecund, who hasn't shaken off the millstones of his past achievements as thoroughly as he thinks. It may be enough that Prince transforms what's already a strong case for his own solipsism into a moral imperative.