(#366: 21 May 1988, 1 week)
Track listing: Eye No/Alphabet St./Glam Slam/Anna Stesia/Dance On/Lovesexy/When 2 R In Love/I Wish U Heaven/Positivity
(Author’s Note: The first song is listed with an “eye” symbol in its title rather than the word “eye.” Also, I only have so much time on this planet.)
Getting to Prince this late is a bit like Bowie’s first number one album being Lodger, except that Bowie hadn’t suddenly withdrawn a “darker” record before releasing the latter. The elaborately rude whiteness of the Jean Baptiste Mondino cover shot contrasts, as I am sure it was meant to do, with the eternal night of The Black Album, which was supposed to sneak out just before Christmas 1987 but was pulled by its creator in apparent distress.
Actually, withdrawing The Black Album was the best thing that he could have done with it, since the record is more embarrassing than shocking. “Dead On It”’s jibes at hip hop are on a par with Stan Freberg’s “Old Payola Roll Blues” and carried the risk of making Prince suddenly seem very old-fashioned. The best thing about “Cindy C.” is Steve “Silk” Hurley’s closing reference to the two-year-old “Music Is The Key.” “Bob George” is no more than moderately disturbing. “Superfunkycalifragisexy” is none of these. The album eventually slunk out as an official release in November 1994, to a world newly aware of Snoop and Biggie who reacted to it with near-total indifference.
Whereas Lovesexy was his last lascivious flourish whose invention sends its immediate TPL predecessors to another planet. “Eye No” is perhaps the record’s most conventional song (the whole was initially intended as a continuous 44:58 sequence of music), ushering us in via a Radiophonic Workshop sample (“Passing Clouds” by Roger Limb if you must know) and the quiet voice of Ingrid Chavez, the future wife of David Sylvian, intoning “Welcome to the New Power Generation” and other things. This all resolves into an agreeable, but no more than agreeable, funk jam, the likes of which would become progressively less agreeable as they became the mainstay of Prince’s subsequent and quite overextended output.
The tune leads directly to “Alphabet St.,” his last great single (as Marc Bolan would have recognised “great singles”), although the car engine-starting effects, out of “Close (To The Edit),” suggest that Prince was already beginning to follow other people’s ideas rather than blaze a trail of his own. Cat Glover’s excitable rap is fun but takes the song far beyond its natural end.
“Glam Slam” suggests somewhere Bolan might have ended up had he lived, although the keyboard work in particular (the Fairlight takes the place of any string sections) seems more indebted to Miles’ semi-random organ blasts throughout Get Up With It. The song is immaculately constructed but gradually veers away from comfort and tonality, culminating in a pointillistic free Fairlight cadenza which slowly runs out of steam.
But “Anna Stesia,” the record’s best song, sets out the record’s central battleground, between good (Camille) and evil (Spooky Electric – who said Iron Maiden?), most effectively and movingly. Rising from, and finally returning to, the same eight-chord piano motif (see also “At Last I Am Free”), the song builds up from troubled lonesome-soul ballad to handclapping redemption; well, if I want to hear people singing “Love is God, God is Love,” this would be several galaxies ahead of Erasure’s yahooing.
Side two is as dense and confrontational, as in daring the listener to keep up, as the second side of On The Corner. “Dance On”’s funk is progressively derailed by a skittering, randomly-stopping-and-starting rhythm which I am sure must have been an influence on early drum n’ bass. The title song takes the gender-swapping template of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and runs with it, Prince and Cat’s voices being varisped up and down a silver curtain rack of ecstasy. Even the two ballads aren’t straightforward; “When 2 R In Love,” the only song to survive from The Black Album, is sweet enough until you notice that Achilles’ heel of a catch in the bassline, and indeed the song turns on that dime of harmonic indeterminacy. Likewise, “I Wish U Heaven” is more a mantra echoing the distant memories of a love song than the thing itself; along with the segueing and studio chatter, the whole album gives the air of an eighties Something/Anything?
Both side and record close with the darkest of these nine songs: “Positivity” is advised more as a warning than a way forward, dispensing happiness like a blithely-spirited pharmacist before picking up on a couple of strands originating from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” blowing them up and rubbing them in the listener’s face; the harmonic ambiguity of the song combines with the words to suggest that all of this might just be in vain.
Overall, then, Lovesexy might be interpreted by some as representing the last dazzle of light before the bulb burns out completely (although it is far from Prince’s last number one album). I don’t buy what he says, either here or on The Black Album, but the least that can be said is that this music would still stand up as a lugubrious appendix to Black Messiah.