Right before the techno-thunderclap that introduces Graffiti Bridge, Prince, trembling, breathes: "Dear Dad — things didn't turn out quite like I wanted them 2/Sometimes I feel like I'm gonna explode." Urgent and yearning, the confession serves as a mission statement for a seventeen-song tour de force that reclaims Prince's rare stature as a pop Picasso — an experimentalist with enough mass appeal to make his experiments matter.
Titanic ambition, obsessive vision, furious virtuosity, Prince's gifts have seemed uncanny — Mephistophelean, profligate. But squandered on the off-hand dance formula of last year's Batman — a tactical slip, because, dunked in the movie's mainstream splash, His Royal Badness disappeared — those gifts have not glistened of late. Graffiti Bridge, the soundtrack to Prince's upcoming movie, revives our gasp of wonder at Prince by making more emphatic than ever the power of his tense persona, a persona strung tight on the wire of his daring coupling of funk and rock, black and white, male and female, flesh and spirit.
In its first four songs, Graffiti Bridge covers more musical waterfront than some bands do in an entire career. "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got," a fizzy, elegant rocker fueled by trebly guitar and cheesy keyboard, brings on the funk anthem "New Power Generation." Then comes the drum blitz of "Release It," a James Brownish workout as fierce as "Housequake" (from Sign o' the Times) or "Tamborine" (from Around the World in a Day), followed by the bluesy hauteur of "The Question of U." What makes this opening flourish more than a mere flexing of skill is a fresh militancy in the lyrics. Prince tough-talks like an embattled champ — "Try 2 tell me how to paint my palace/That ain't where it's at"; "The only thing that's in our way is U"; "Whose crib is this — my crib!/Whose wine U drinkin' — mine!" And with the existential media fret of "The Question of U" ("Must I become naked? No image at all?"), he mines a tormented realism and self-doubt that fight the coy narcissism of some of his earlier work.
A sharper focus and harder groove raise Graffiti Bridge above the feckless genre dabbling that often enlivened but sometimes undercut Parade, Around the World in a Day and Lovesexy. Having long proved that he can credibly emit any sound, from orchestral lush to Beatlemaniac cute, Prince forgoes his more outré style tinkering to fix on rock and funk, pumping the latter with neat guest spots by George Clinton on "We Can Funk" and by Prince's resurrected R&B protégés in the Time on "Shake!" Gospel veteran Mavis Staples shines on the strutting "Melody Cool," but most of the album is Prince solo — his guitar soaring from crunchy Steve Cropperisms to baroque Hendrix frenzy, his studio smarts peppering tracks with enough hand claps, keyboard peals and artful noise to keep the listener, in this day of texture-happy production, consistently surprised and intrigued.
All through the album, Prince reprises his trademark themes of love sexy and love divine: "Lick it like U like it," he pants on "Love Machine," and, on "Elephants and Flowers," he promises that "There will be peace 4 those who love God a lot." So sure and catchy, though, are the tunes and so cleareyed (for Prince) the words that his omnivorous mysticism is newly convincing — convincing, but still startling, sensual and freeing.
Along with the sinuous "Thieves in the Temple" and its air of dread, "Graffiti Bridge" is a standout, a "Purple Rain"-like electric hymn, a call for transcendence, a moving quest for "A bridge that leads 2 a better land than real." Built up from an album's worth of nervy, confident material characterized by a new maturity — though only as mature, happily, as we'd want Prince to be — the song's cry for salvation hardly seems escapist or fantastic. Prince — among other things, one of rock's greatest actors — comes off as desperately real.
Appearing, since Dirty Mind, able to master anything, Prince's willful, almost perverse bravery (like David Bowie's or Bob Dylan's) has meant skirting the obvious — eluding the platinum ozone of Madonna or Michael Jackson, where sheer size rules and significance falls sadly beside the point. Rather, he has mustered a subversive triumph, making records half-brilliant, half-quirky, managing the Minneapolis scene with the ghost hand of a funky Gatsby, deploying an army-harem of disciples and flashing a dazzle of guises unified in their harlequin outrageousness. By the very promiscuity of these bold strategies, he has inseminated the whole of pop. With Graffiti Bridge and its firm coalescence of his styles and concerns, Prince reasserts his originality — and does it with the ease of a conqueror.