Purple Spring Review: The Love Symbol Album (1992)
Prince’s career since the 1980s crashed to a close has been one marred by decline, inconsistency, and some music that could even be described as indifferent. See the last few records released under his Warner Bros. contract for more evidence on that last point.
Throughout that time, the basic ingredients of Prince’s artistic work–mastery of instrumentation, comfortable genre-hopping, and solid songwriting–have been there for the most part. What was lost in the 1990s and for most of the time up until now is new ideas. At his peak, Prince was overflowing with sonic ideas that defined whole sections of music for years. Dirty Mind and 1999 had a profound impact on the nascent electronic dance music genre, and Parade and Around the World in a Day made a home for psychedelia in the 1980s. Since the advent of hip-hop’s golden age, Prince has been a relatively conservative figure. Eccentric and leftfield, to be sure, but still beholden to pop forms he helped establish almost three decades ago.
I’ve chosen this unnamed album from 1992, officially titled the unpronounceable symbol on the cover but usually called The Love Symbol Album or, as iTunes has it, Prince, because it is the most exciting, engaging album he released after 1990. Working with a new band–the New Power Generation–Prince here engages all of his signature sounds with a ferocity and ingenuity he would later strain but never quite reach again.
“My Name Is Prince” gets things going to a raucous, if somewhat unsatisfying, start. It’s a major-league dance workout, to be sure, and catchy if naught else. It also has the ungracious “privilege” of hosting some truly teeth-grating rap verses courtesy of NPG member Tony M. I find his delivery overblown and his rhymes less-than-inspiring at their best. It’s certainly a great deal of fun, though, and sets us off into the hit single and highlight of the first LP, “Sexy MF.” Incorporating old-school horn stabs and layered, spidery guitar lines, it hits a sweet spot between unmitigated sleaze and enjoyable sophistication to work well. The other noteworthy tracks on the first LP include “Morning Papers,” a lovely if saccharine ballad, and the more hard-edged “The Max.” Versatility has always been one of Prince’s strong suits when making albums because it allows him to make such sharp transitions in mood and sound without it sounding either desperate or unfocused.
On the second LP, the highlights include the biggest hit from the album, “7,” which reaches for a cosmic peak and damn near meets it. Its sentiments are expressed through lovingly overblown hyperbole, and the music is grounded by subdued drum beats and acoustic guitar chords. Check these lyrics:
All 7 and we’ll watch them fall
They stand in the way of love
And we will smoke them all
With an intellect and a savoir-faire
No one in the whole universe
Will ever compare
I am yours now and u are mine
And together we’ll love through
All space and time, so don’t cry
Prince is also in fine vocal form here, also ably using a sample from an Otis Redding song called “Tramp.” Another track to look into is “3 Chains of Gold,” another song that clearly looks to fill a stadium with sound. While “7” is more intimate, “3 Chains of Gold” is a true rock epic, featuring screaming guitars and soaring moments worthy of an arena rock band. Not to mention piano and strings galore. It drags in moments, but makes me wonder what it would be like to get a Prince album that embraced such musical complexity and fully invested in the arena rock idiom. “3 Chains of Gold” recalls Queen, and it’s the song I find myself returning to the most frequently and with the most pleasure. The album closes with another danceable funk song, “The Sacrifice of Victor,” certainly excellent if not the best dance-funk song Prince ever wrote. It’s a fitting conclusion to an album full of highlights but ultimately inconsistent.
Technically the album is bound together by a loose (Very very loose, since even my tiger’s ears have a hard time hearing it) concept that includes, oddly enough, Kirstie Alley talking to Prince over the phone. I make such little mention of it because, in my four or five run-throughs of the album, it has made neither positive nor negative impression on me. I would recommend listeners disregard the concept–it makes things simpler and less bewildering that way.
I hesitate to call The Love Symbol Album Prince’s last great work. After all, he’s still recording and performing live shows. There could be a few more great records in him yet. There are also excellent songs on many of the subsequent records. Yet it is here that I want to bring our weeklong retrospective on Prince to an end. The Love Symbol Album is everything that Prince had perfected the decade before, brought much of the time to a musical apex by his skilled band. It is utterly satisfying even in its clunkier moments, and this makes it, to this tiger, the natural end point for discussing Prince’s great work. Let’s hope whatever he decides to release soon will eclipse it, but for now we’ll let the Purple One rest.
Come back next week for articles on something other than Prince. It’ll be a relief to all of us, but thanks for reading. This is the end of Purple Spring.