Every year, Prince releases a new album, and every year fans hope that maybe this time he will finally deliver a knockout worthy of standing side by side with his best work. Even after 18 years of good but not great releases, gems hidden among the mediocrity, and moments of sheer brilliance sitting alongside embarrassments, hope remains that pop’s most mercurial genius might once again reach back and hit a home run. Alas, his latest offering, “Planet Earth,” reinforces what we already should know but can’t seem to accept: the glory days of the 80s appear to be long gone for the Purple Wonder. That’s not to say that “Planet Earth” doesn’t deliver its own kind of pleasures. It is still Prince, after all. His most aimless throwaways are still better than 90 percent of what gets played on pop radio these days. The straightforward rocker “Guitar,” the album’s first single, is a fun track, and it’s easy to enjoy until one remembers some of the classics that Prince has released as the first single from prior albums -- “Sign o’ The Times,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” “Raspberry Beret” to name but a few. To say “Guitar” pales in comparison to these titans is an understatement, to say the very least.
Therein lies the problem with evaluating any new Prince record. Ultimately, is main competition is his prior self, and that’s unfair. Does an album have to match the brilliance of a “Parade,” “Purple Rain” or “Sign o’ the Times” to be enjoyable and entertaining? No, but there is still a sense of frustration that Prince is capable of more. “Planet Earth” comes and goes and provides little in the way of exceptional creativity. Prince is on auto-pilot here, and while it’s enjoyable at times, it’s hard not to think that it could be so much better.
“Somewhere Here on Earth” is a lovely piano ballad with muted trumpet. Unfortunately, we’ve pretty much heard it before (think “Condition of the Heart,” “The Other Side of the Pillow,” “Damn U,” “Power Fantastic,” endless others.) One of the problems with being so insanely prolific is that you tend to repeat yourself, and in Prince’s case he does it frequently. Name a song on “Planet Earth,” and you can name a song in Prince’s long catalogue that it to a certain extent recreates. “The One 2 Wanna C” echoes mid-tempo pop rockers like “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” or “Cinnamon Girl.” The lengthy opening track, while powerful in its way, is reminiscent of “Still Would Stand All Time,” “Gold,” or “The Ladder.”
Another problem is Prince’s insistence on attempting to stay relevant with the times, with sometimes excruciating results. His early-90s material was marred by his disastrous attempts to incorporate a tougher hip-hop/rap image into his work. Unfortunately, he hasn’t completely abandoned these delusions. ”Mr. Goodnight,” which features Prince cooing incredibly cheesy lines in a sort of semi-rap that he apparently intended to be sexy but just ends up sounding incredibly silly, is one of the ghastliest musical miscalculations of his career. It belongs on the late-90s travesty “New Power Soul”, or, better yet, left as an outtake. That a man reputed to having thousands of unreleased gems collecting dust in his vault saw fit to release something as excruciating as “Mr. Goodnight” defies logic.
Similarly, while a track like “Future Baby Mama” is a nice enough mid-tempo soul ballad, hearing a sheltered, almost-50-year-old multi-millionaire like Prince try and use current youth slang like “baby mama” is a bit jarring. Prince doesn’t have street cred, he hasn’t for at least 23 years, and he needs to come to grips with this simple fact.
Like its predecessors “3121” and “Musicology,” “Planet Earth” attempts to at least touch on most if not all of Prince’s various stylistic leanings, but unfortunately this time around the material isn’t as strong. “3121” buries it easily, and the mostly-solid “Musicology” trumps it as well. Very few times on “Planet Earth” does it really feel like Prince has pulled off something stellar. The high point is probably the lithe funk workout “Chelsea Rodgers,” or the mystical “Lion of Judea.” The brief “All The Midnights in the World” is gorgeous. “The One U Wanna C” is a catchy tune that would be a smart single choice. The presence of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman on a couple tracks is nice, but the seem to be underutilized. “Resolution” is a nice enough song melodically, but unfortunately - like much of the album - it is seriously hampered by hackneyed and clichéd lyrics. It’s about as profound as a 7th grader writing a poem for English class about world peace. It reminds me of the episode of “The Golden Girls,” when Rose Nyland writes a letter to Reagan and Gorbachev about nuclear war, and everyone assumes it’s written by a grade school student. Perhaps Prince has been borrowing lyrics from school-children? It’s the only explanation that fits.
It’s long been assumed that Prince has nobody to tell him “no,” and he wouldn’t listen even if they did…. Surely anybody in his inner circle who listened to “Planet Earth” would try and convince His Purple Stubbornness that it’s substandard, too short, too weak, and not worthy of release as a high-profile Prince album. But, then again, why would Prince need someone to tell him “no”? He just sold out 21 major shows in London. He has complete artistic freedom unfettered by any major-label shackles. He’s one of the most revered artists in music history. He remains an incredible force in a concert setting. Maybe he knows what he’s doing, and in 25 years even songs like “Mr. Goodnight” will all make sense. With Prince, anything is possible. He’s made a career out of getting the last laugh.