And so it came to pass that Prince returned from exile, wowed Grammy viewers by performing old hits alongside Beyoncé, let himself get inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, hit the road, and put out an album that sounded like he was trying to please someone other than himself. And there was great rejoicing in the land, because, hey, who's better than Prince? And wouldn't it be great to have him back?
But there's a dirty little secret behind Prince's return: Musicology, the album ostensibly driving it, is only okay. Sure, it's great by comparison. Played back to back with, say, The Rainbow Children, Musicology sounds like Parade and Around The World In A Day rolled into one. It suggests those albums' free embrace of funk and psychedelic pop, and it joins them to a laid-back mood. But it's still nothing more than a suggestion. The spirited titular opening track ends with a quick sound collage of instantly recognizable snippets from Prince's past, and as the album spins on, it produces the sinking revelation that nothing here rivals them.
Musicology is better than Prince has managed in a while, but comebacks need to sound like powerful statements of purpose, not like a casual "Hi, I'm back," especially now that Prince has more than his own past to compete with. The last few years have seen the release of two Prince albums better than this one: Basement Jaxx's Rooty and OutKast's The Love Below have different artists' names on the cover, but they both take Prince's idea of future funk and push it further than before.
Still, an okay Prince album trumps most pretenders' best efforts. Musicology is never bad, and though it does get bogged down in indistinguishable ballads, it usually finds a way to recover. "Cinnamon Girl," for instance, could pass for a minor '80s Prince hit. "If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life" finds some heat in coveting a neighbor's woman, and the album-closing "Reflection" brings the disc to a close with a nice bit of nostalgic introspection. All in all, Musicology is nothing to be ashamed of, and the songs won't sound horribly out of place on Prince's greatest-hits-themed tour. But maybe when he gets done winning hearts by recapturing past triumphs, he can get around to working on some new ones.