Starting somewhere in the early Nineties, he seemed to disappear into his own bizarre obsessions — the muddled jazz-fusion spirituality of The Rainbow Children (2001) and the instrumental meanderings of N.E.W.S. (2003) being only the most recent excesses. But then, late last year, his election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made you remember just how potent, irresistible and groundbreaking a force he once was. Then, his commanding performance with Beyonce to open the Grammys proved that he could still thrill in such a high-pressure spot. And that solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony? Devastating.
Now comes Musicology, as appealing, focused and straight-up satisfying an album as Prince has made since who can remember when. It's open, easygoing and inclusive, the sort of album anyone might like. Most notably, Musicology restores a refreshing sense of songcraft to Prince's writing. Rather than seeming like mere sketches, as so much of his recent work has, each track on the album is distinct, coherent and rigorously uncluttered — whether it's a bluesy lament such as "On the Couch," a lovelorn meditation like "A Million Days" or a stop-time jam such as "If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life." And the singer makes it clear that he has learned that rigor from the masters. "Wish I had a dollar for every time you say/'Don't you miss the feeling music gave you back in the day?' " he sings over an insinuating bass line on the title track. Then, like Arthur Conley calling out to the R&B pantheon in his 1967 hit "Sweet Soul Music," Prince names names: " 'Let's Groove,' 'September' — Earth, Wind and Fire/'Hot Pants,' by James/Sly's gonna take you higher."
Now forty-five, Prince realizes — and repeatedly declares — that his tastes are "old-school." On "Reflection," one of several ballads that float by on a sweet musical breeze reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, memory sweeps Prince away: "Remember all the way back in the day/When we would compare whose Afro was the roundest?" Moments like this rescue Prince from his eccentricities and make him recognizable again. On the sizzling funk track "Life 'O' the Party," he wryly mimics his old rival Michael Jackson ("My voice is getting higher/I ain't never had my nose done"), as if to emphasize his distance from the only pop-culture figure perceived as weirder than he is.
Its relative clarity aside, Musicology is still a Prince album, so it hardly lacks bold ideas. "Cinnamon Girl" borrows a title from Neil Young and a deft hook from the mid-Eighties to explore racial and ethnic differences in a post-9/11 world. Other songs sprinkle offhand references to the Iraq war, the Fourteenth Amendment, the Bible, numerology and the corrupting power of greed. Prince — who is now a Jehovah's Witness — has dialed his trademark sexual explicitness way down. But that restraint works, too. With its sinuous grooves and effortless swing — not to mention Prince's seductive vocals — Musicology simmers with a submerged erotic tension.
Finally, of all things, the album is a hymn to marriage — not the frisky fantasy stuff of "Let's Pretend We're Married" but the real domestic deal. "Did we remember to water the plants today?" the singer asks on "Reflection," Musicology's closing song, finding the secret life of love in a quotidian detail. That's an example of how Prince, who claimed that Musicology would take everyone back to school, is really the one who has understood an essential lesson: Less can be so much more.