Prince

The Rainbow Children (NPG Records)

Prince's first gospel album might just be his least spiritual work. If media speculation is to be believed, his latest identity switch has been to Jehovah's Witness. And though he hasn't confirmed the conversion, the convoluted music and dry scriptural narrative that dominate The Rainbow Children is hard evidence of a change of faith.

The most glaring evidence is the dearth of sex, once part and parcel to Prince's religion. From "Little Red Corvette" to 1995's "P. Control," he was an unashamed sexual optimist with an admiration for strong, sensual women rarely shown by male pop stars. There's little more of sex on The Rainbow Children than a sexist aside in which he honors his soul mate thusly: "I don't have to worry what goes in and out of her mouth."

But there are pleasures, besides the carnal, to be found even on Prince's worst albums, and this worst album is no exception. The gorgeous "She Loves Me 4 Me" is giddy and faux-Latin like West Side Story's "I Feel Pretty," but swoons like Al Green. The devotional-pop rock of "Last December"is as soaring and melodic as "Raspberry Beret" and could supply the pile of holy shit that is Christian pop radio with its first crossover hit since "Wind Beneath My Wings."

The problem is that these two are not only the album's best songs, but among fewer than half of the 15 tracks that are actual songs -- the rest is stoic, semi-Biblical jazz-funk opera. "Muse 2 the Pharaoh," for example, starts out cooking, with angular, buttery, staccato soul, but quickly degenerates into a rudderless jazz odyssey with spoken-word interludes conveying such bamboozlers as, "The opposite of NATO is OTAN." And unless the Witnesses, as austere in their observance as are Orthodox Jews, consider song structure to be idol worship, there's no excuse for the title track's 10 minutes of noodling and silly voice-of-God narration.

Not that the iconic genius doesn't try. Listening to the meticulously produced kaleidoscope of sounds on The Rainbow Children, one pictures him hunched over the sound boards deep inside his Minneapolis compound, perfecting this opus. If you're impressed by sheer skill, this album may captivate you. There's no denying the prowess behind the fat, precise funk, the lushly orchestrated synth, the vocal ambrosia, or that vibrant, economical guitar work that makes Santana sound like an ostentatious hack. But Prince has always been more than the sum of the 12 seasoned session men inside him. His best work, from Sign o' the Times, to The Gold Experience (as T.A.F.K.A.P.), have grit, humanity, poetry and sex -- a truly godly combination. By that standard, The Rainbow Children is a golden calf.

 
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