30 Years On: Lovesexy By Prince Revisited

David Bennun celebrates Prince's last statement of pure genius three decades later

Now I think of it, I’m struck by how seldom I have gone out and bought an album on the day it was released. In the few years that passed between first finding myself in a position, budget permitting, to obtain any music I wanted (joy!) and having music sent to me (a miracle), my time and scant resources were chiefly devoted to catching up on all that I’d missed.

I do remember marvelling at New Order’s Technique as soon as it came out, playing it over and over until it seemed I lived inside it; and being knocked sideways and back again by Public Enemy with Fear Of A Black Planet. There was Prefab Sprout’s Protest Songs, which stands the test of time, and Mainstream by Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, which barely stood the test of an afternoon; but I was enraptured by the wonderful Rattlesnakes, so kept trying. And, oddly, Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick – I was and remain an admirer of his two previous LPs, is why.

But nothing else had quite the instant effect upon me of Prince’s Lovesexy, which in 1988 made me feel as if a giant box of fireworks had been deposited in my brainpan and a lit match flung thereupon.

Context, then. It had only been a year since Sign O’ The Times, which was already regarded as a masterpiece among masterpieces. Look at the run Prince was on – 1999, Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade. You had to go back to Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan to find a solo artist in that form, and if you care to pursue the parallel, Sign O’ The Times was Prince’s Blonde On Blonde, his Songs In The Key Of Life. The moment of what could have been epic overreach but wasn’t, when the listening world was amazed to find it was all within his grasp – that his talent and vision really did match his ambition.

We know what happens next in this cycle. The rumours of burnout. The absence. Followed either by retreat into simplicity and the comforts of tradition (John Wesley Harding; an undervalued record, but that’s another story) or by an eccentric tangent. (Mind you, folk often overlook that The Secret Life Of Plants was a documentary soundtrack, not a stand-alone work.)

Not with Prince, though. First of all, it would have taken a sustained aerial bombardment to stop him working. His public image, carefully cultivated, was that of an epicurean pansexual who spent all night and day lolling upon cloth-of-gold cushions as lubricated nymphets fed him grapes and nipples. His actual existence centred monomaniacally upon the recording studio, whence he sustained not only his own prolific career but those of an entire cadre of acolytes. It’s not that he didn’t suffer from burnout. Quite the opposite: those around him often feared for his mental and physical health. Only that it never slowed him down. Prince would appear to have been born with a lifetime’s supply of angel dust stashed somewhere in his system. Chop his limbs off, Black Knight-style, and he’d probably have made two albums a year with his teeth.

Secondly, he hadn’t run out of ideas. That would come, before too long. But it didn’t happen on cue. Instead, Lovesexy did. An album so crammed with ideas it might have seen him through the 1990s had he been more parsimonious and spread them out.

A little more context, before we proceed. Let’s pan out. The 1980s was an era of pop superstars and blockbuster albums. And plenty else, before anyone quibbles; but those things, undeniably. Prince was in no sense the biggest of those stars. But he was far and away the most brilliant. Difficult as it is to project oneself into the mind of such a person, imagine for a moment you are one of his rivals, jostling for supremacy atop this narcissists’ Olympus. Whatever you do, however hard you try, no matter how long it takes you or many copies of the result you sell, you will spend the decade eating Prince’s dust. By the time you get to where you last saw him, he’s gone. He’s two or three albums ahead.

Let’s say you’re the biggest of the lot. Thriller is, appropriately, a monster. For a year or two, everybody wants to be you. Then you have to rethink everything because of Purple Rain, which hasn’t so much crossed between genres and markets as kung-fu-kicked them into a sprawling heap. But anything he can do… so you pick up on those hard, clattering beats, those dirty wailing rock guitars, that pin-point tension, and after five long years between albums you release Bad. Guess what? The little fucker’s only gone and been a psychedelic soul hippie, a suavely monochromatic funk master and a cosmic jazzed-up polymath in the meantime. And Christ knows what he’ll do next.

Which is why, on the day Lovesexy was released, my pals and I sat before my old Thorens turntable and listened to side one, and without a word being exchanged turned it over to side two, then looked at one another afterwards in a baffled, dazzled silence finally broken by one of us saying, "Yeah, and Michael Jackson’s supposed to be the mad one?"

Because Prince had made stronger albums than Lovesexy. He’d made tighter ones, and more ingenious ones. But what he had never done and would never do was make one that erupted upon the listener in such synapse-popping ecstacy. It’s an exploding kaleidoscope of a record.

"Rain is wet, and sugar is sweet. Clap your hands and stomp your feet. Everybody, everybody knows, when love calls, you got to go. [Lascivious giggle] [Orgasmic screech]" As many others have noted, Lovesexy is Prince’s gospel album. "Love is God, God is Love, girls and boys love God above," he chants on ‘Anna Stesia’, and by "Love", he doesn’t just mean the concept, he means the action. Sex is worship. How do you fight the Devil? (Here characterised as "Spooky Electric".) Fucking, mainly. Now, that may not be quite how the more established Churches would have it, but I say, let’s hear the fellow out.

An aside here on Prince’s personal mythos. Sign O’The Times signalled the imminence of a period, and Lovesexy the full arrival of it, in which he wrestled with the big moral and spiritual questions – God versus Satan, Good versus Evil, the false opposition of pleasure with virtue – and lost. Every time. But at least, in the beginning, he lost gloriously. The music created by Prince in the late 1980s added absolutely nothing to our understanding of religion, theology, mysticism or the relationship between the sensual and the spiritual. He was a kind of inverse William Blake. But the music. Oh, dear Lord, the music. At its best, the music could make you believe there was a profound truth in it. That he Knew Something. Just as traditional gospel can leave the most rigorous atheist ready to testify, so Prince could have one convinced one could screw one’s way to heaven – not a metaphorical one, either; the literal one. As if anyone needs that incentive.

Lovesexy was the first and last moment this set of themes worked as an entire piece, because it was the last time a complete Prince album would soar. Thereafter his philosophising, his efforts to codify his uninspired blather into a pseudo-Christian sacred language all his own, would become ever more ponderous and trite. Or if they didn’t, maybe the falling off in the music, combined with his greater emphasis on the subject, made it seem that way. Perhaps his eventual adoption of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ creed signalled a relieved recognition on his part that somebody else had already made a more thorough job of it.

But what matters, all that matters here, is that Lovesexy did work. From the hilarious, suggestive peekaboo fashion-plate cover to the breathing-in-yer-ear closing moments of ‘Positivity’. ("Yes… Yes… Yes…" is the motif there , and well it might be.) Gaudy, illuminated, rampant, lip-licking, it’s the kind of erotically charged travesty of high mass that Madonna could only dream of. Perhaps it was envy that later induced her, with an acumen otherwise lacking in her film career, to inform him that the Graffiti Bridge project in which he sought to cast her was, "a piece of shit." Not that she was wrong. But by then, the genius was crumbling as fast as the banality was building. On Lovesexy, though, it all came together. Yes, pun entirely intended.

It all came together on the CD version, as well, which was released as a single 45-minute track. All at once is still the best way to hear it. But then, it’s an album on which everything seems to happen all at once. It has a lunatic clutter to it, a hint of the Goon Show in the way it hurls random sound effects, digressions and instrumental stings about the place, yet everything fits. It is the careful disarray of an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing, and who masters hectic intricacy with the same brio he applied to spare elegance two albums before. Lovesexy‘s busy-ness, its crowded atmosphere, is meticulously staged, the result of prodigious planning and construction – as so often, he recorded the great bulk of it on his own. It’s even more remarkable that it was knocked together in a matter of weeks as a replacement for its harsh alter ego, The Black Album, which Prince, not Warners, pulled from release at the last minute, and whose notoriety has inflated its reputation.

Perhaps that has something to do with why Lovesexy‘s own reputation is not what it should be: a sense that The Black Album was the real deal, the heavy-duty contraband, and this was its sanitised substitute. But that is surely the only context in which Lovesexy could be considered sanitised. It is gleefully filthy, for the most part. The wild variety which was so acclaimed a feature of Sign O’ The Times wasn’t so well received on Lovesexy, and again, this is a pity. ‘Alphabet Street’ may be a bona fide classic funky Prince hit, but the feverish, unwieldy, horn-driven R&B revue pastiche ‘Eye No’, which precedes it and opens the album, is every bit as inventive, and far less predictable. ‘Glam Slam’, with its woozy choral sway, might have been taken from Around The World In A Day, and would have been among the best things on it if it had. ‘Anna Stesia’ is one of my very favourite Prince tunes, a singalong piano anthem topped with frosted icing, which I’ve long thought of as a softly pornographic ‘Let It Be’. An idea that might not appeal to everybody, granted, but I love it.

‘Dance On’ picks up where the title track of Sign O’ The Times left off. Prince’s state-of-the-world songs were seldom much more insightful than his state-of-the-soul ones, but here he’s far from alone within R&B (and indeed pop music in general.) Marvin Gaye’s beautiful but inane What’s Going On album better represents the genre’s overall level of social wisdom than Curtis Mayfield’s superb, lucid work from the same era. So it seems a tad unfair to pick on Prince for that. Again, what really counts is the sound and the feel; the staccato fashion by which he sonically conjures a street-gang gun battle of a type that was, in his own youth, mercifully uncommon in Minneapolis.

The phrase "new power generation" first appeared on the Lovesexy album, and on the title track references abound to the "new power" which drives the concept of "Lovesexy" (ballin’ for Jesus, y’all). The track itself is an almost casual masterclass in developing the Swingbeat sound that Prince gets too little credit for influencing, and the segment of the album which most clearly indicates where he’s going rather than where he’s been. He rocks it. I don’t intend that as a turn of phrase; I mean he turns it into a variant of rock music. Then ‘When 2 R In Love’ flutters in on fragile wings of proto-txtspk. (Prince is a bit like the ancient Chinese, in that it sometimes seems there’s nothing he didn’t do first.) Or rather, sextspeak. With all the awkwardness implied. "The thought of his tongue in the V of her love/ In his mind, this thought, it leads the pack." Erk. That’s right, baby. Talk dirty to me, using weirdly formal, ungainly and inapt metaphors.

Having arrived in a panting rush, Lovesexy departs in its own sweet time. ‘When 2 R In Love’, ‘I Wish U Heaven’ and ‘Positivity’ form a closing suite whose measured pace is set off by an extraordinary variety of texture: silken, weightless delicacy; then the sequined sheen of a power ballad so restrained you don’t at first realise that’s what it is; finally, the steady, pulsing, NPG-prefiguring hymnal of ‘Positivity’. Have you had your plus sign today? Oh, Prince. Who else could make insipid self-help slogans sound like divine light tumbling from Elysium, and vice-versa?

I call Lovesexy as the last great Prince album. The coda to one of those decade-spanning bursts in which musical titans seem to specialise. Not that there weren’t good things to come; a collection of the fine Prince tunes released post-1988 would still shame most other best-ofs. But this was the final true vision of a true visionary – a man convinced he had something essential to tell the world, and who couldn’t have been more right, and couldn’t have been more wrong; or perhaps, more wrong about why he was right. It isn’t true that when Mike Scott sang, "You saw the whole of the Moon," he was thinking of Prince. But had he been – and he so plausibly could have been – then Lovesexy captured Prince’s valedictory orbit before he fell back to Earth and took to watching the heavens from there.

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