(#463: 17 October 1992, 1 week)
Track listing: My Name Is Prince/Sexy MF/Love 2 The 9’s/The Morning Papers/The Max/Blue Light/ 👁 Wanna Melt With U/Sweet Baby/The Continental/Damn U/Arrogance/The Flow/7/And God Created Woman/3 Chains O’ Gold/The Sacrifice Of Victor
(Author’s Note: No attempt to type the “Love Symbol #2” [to be technically precise] proto-emoji has been attempted. What do you take me for, Gauguin?)
By the early nineties, Prince could argue that it wasn’t he who had changed, but the times and the expectations. Most observers, for the sake of an easier life, preferred to believe otherwise, and so it has become received gospel that after Lovesexy his aesthetic dip became significantly steeper.
But Love Symbol, as I am going to refer to the record here - for the sake of an easier life – is an inventive and at times highly explosive album which got yawned out of relevance, even if, commercially, it became his biggest-selling record since Purple Rain. Half of the album undoubtedly benefits from the involvement of the New Power Generation, and the feeling of interacting with a full band, whereas the other half was more or less assembled by Prince alone. Nonetheless, there is overall much more of a group feel to the record than there had been to 1991’s nice but undercooked Diamonds And Pearls.
The record’s primary linking concept was largely lost along the way, which was just as well because it is really very silly indeed; an absurd pseudo-operatic premise concerning an Egyptian princess and a precious religious artefact called the Three Chains O’ Gold. In the original album mix, all songs were linked by segues of plotline, mostly involving a distracted-sounding Kirstie Alley as a reporter trying to get an interview with the man, but because Prince insisted on adding more and more music, much of this material had to be jettisoned; only two segues involving Alley survive in the final sequence.
Perhaps he had heard Dangerous and realised that his game needed upping – or, given Tony M’s numerous and not embarrassing raps throughout the record, he had cocked an attentive ear to Ice-T’s O.G. (Original Gangster). The departure of Miles Davis may also have been on his mind, given the relatively extensive use of brass and reeds and the general modal nature of the record’s songs. “And God Created Woman,” a sort of revved-up Michael Franks reverie, benefits in particular from the band’s involvement, with its sublime vocal interactions (the sepulchral bass of “lied,” the isolated collective chill of “flesh of my flesh”).
Nonetheless, “My Name Is Prince” and “Sexy MF” really pack a one-two-how-about-that-suckers punch; hard yet elastic, funky but fluid. Coming from anybody else, both would have been embarrassing, but Prince was smart enough to convert self-aggrandisation into fuck-you roars of lilac dominance. Songs like “The Max” are near-industrial in their unforgiving nature. “👁 Wanna Melt With U” feels perpetually on the point of combusting. “Arrogance” is spectacularly unapologetic.
The ballads, too, are among his unsung best. “Love 2 The 9’s” seems ready to drift, tantrically, forever, in its unending coital catechisms. “Blue Light” is that rarest of entities, credible pop-reggae. “Sweet Baby” is a thing of wonder at which George Michael could only have wondered, whereas “Damn U” is something considerably more than wondrous, a matchlessly versatile vocal placed, like Caspar David Friedrich’s caped wanderers, amid an eternal, dark green forest of visionary chord changes. “7,” an Eastern gospel mantra which manages to sample Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ “Tramp” without anybody noticing, is less showy but probably more heartfelt than 1987’s “The Cross.” Only “The Morning Papers” doesn’t quite work; the Hendrix guitar eruptions at the end unbalance and in part sink this very modest song, giving it more burden than it can realistically bear.
Everything on Love Symbol flows satisfactorily without much in the way of flaws. Its retrospective significance becomes abundantly clear, however, on “3 Chains O’ Gold,” with its expansive deployment of strings, choir and flute – arranged by former Lennie Tristano associate Clare Fischer, who had accomplished a similar job throughout 1986’s Parade – when you realise which young people, hoping to be musicians, were listening and paying attention to what Prince was doing here, and in particular, and overwhelmingly, what the eleven-year-old Kamasi Washington was absorbing, since “3 Chains O’ Gold” leads directly to elements of Heaven And Earth. Ryan Porter must have been paying close attention to Mike Nelson’s excellent trombone solos throughout the album, and one inevitably also thinks of Thundercat, and Flying Lotus, and even (or especially) Kendrick Lamar, all of whom took something significant from Love Symbol in terms of influence, and not just its integrated funk (“The Continental [with its Carmen Electra cameo],” “The Sacrifice Of Victor”).
This album, though not Prince’s final visit to Then Play Long, is rather more important than you might have thought.