Prince didn’t make his way onto the Las Vegas scene until well after his “Ripopgodazippa” and “319” helped work Elizabeth Berkeley and her fellow Showgirls into an iced-nipple frenzy. While in the interim it’s felt like both the Purple One and the neon-lit Strip have been neck-and-neck in a race to see which one could more self-reverentially clean up their act, there have been surprising signs of naughty life in each since. On one hand is the city’s advertising campaign reminding tourists that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas (minus STDs). On the other hand we’ve got Prince—who up until Musicology‘s “Call My Name” spent the better part of the last decade trying to make us all forget all the nasty girls he’d forced us all to undress with our ears—making not explicitly Jehovah’s Witness-proselytizing tunes once again.
Planet Earth, the third album in what may end up being dubbed his un-emancipated period (well, there was also Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, but the history books will hopefully find a way to forget about that one), finds Prince trying to forge some sort of acceptable balance between his Herculean reputation and the sense that his return to pop is really a veiled form of condescension. If there’s anything holding back Musicology, 3121, and Planet Earth, it’s the notion that Prince now approaches pop songwriting in the same way artists playing Vegas approach their own personae. While all three albums, at their best, contain precisely the sort of seasoned professionalism you wouldn’t ever cite as an actual compliment, there remains a nostalgic pull that’s no less electric for being completely anesthetized and overly rehearsed.
In that sense, Planet Earth‘s best songs are likely the ones that cover familiar ground both lyrically (“Guitar,” in which Prince reiterates the same charmingly narcissistic instrument as instrument byplay that turned his Super Bowl halftime show into a near-lewd shadowboxing exercise) and musically (“Somewhere Here On Earth,” an over-orchestrated ballad that recalls some of the best material from the original incarnation of New Power Generation). If occasionally the total recall only makes one long for the past (“Future Baby Mama” uses those indelible mutant snare hits from “The Beautiful Ones” in service of a very unsexy monogamy groove), there are other times when what he includes on the disc is clearly meant as a template for a future all-hours aftershow. I for one can’t wait to hear the retro disco of “Chelsea Rodgers” turned out in a 12-minute jam session. Still, while Wendy and Lisa are back in the hot tub (along with Sheila E.), the computer blue waters of Planet Earth might not be warm enough yet to start hoping for Prince to reunite with The Revolution.