We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Leave it to the artist formerly known as Prince to end his 18-year relationship with Warner Bros. by handing over a somewhat ragtag collection of tracks initially “intended 4 private use only.” Who else would cast aside the elaborate wrappings of his previous release in favor of a crude photo collage apparently cobbled together one afternoon with the aid of home computer and color Xerox machine? And who else would assure that said album, Chaos and Disorder, was actually a pretty good checklist of many of the things this frequent genius does best?
Prince, of course, has spent much of the past three years torn between a creativity remarkable by almost anyone’s standards and a streak of self-destruction, if not outright delusion. After a decade-and-a-half of noninterference from Warners that began in Prince’s 20th year (1978) with For You and continued through a series of precocious albums and commercial triumphs, the renamed symbol-man bridled at the label’s machinery, which demanded only one disc a year. Not enough, insisted Prince, whose legend claimed hundreds of stockpiled tunes, including those from the much-touted (and then unheard) Gold Experience. He began declaring himself a “slave” to WB, going so far as to appear on stage and TV with the word painted on one (facial) cheek.
Despite such protests, it was the very freedom Prince nonetheless continued to enjoy that began to get the better of him. After announcing his wish to leave Warners, he issued a one-off single on an independent label. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” ended up his biggest hit in years, going gold even without the Time Warner machine behind it. Rather than continue the streak, though, Prince’s next Warners album turned out to be his weakest. Instead of releasing the already completed Gold Experience, Prince handed over a stack of old tapes he called Come. That disc’s general air of stinginess did absolutely nothing to commend the stellar Gold to buyers when it finally appeared last September.
Which brings us to Chaos and Disorder, a perfect title for a record by an artist who can’t even decide what to call himself. (The Girl 6 soundtrack, with mostly previously available tunes, was credited to “Prince”; Gold and Chaos both carry the symbol. Rumors that he’ll soon drop the squiggle have yet to be proved.) Chaos’ unsurprising subtext is that of the artist battling the wicked, uncaring establishment. “Chaos and disorder are rulin’ my world today,” he shrieks on the title track, a hard-rocking litany of confusions ranging from the AIDS threat to loss of airplay (at least he doesn’t blame Warner execs for the disease). “I Rock, Therefore I Am” finds him in a rare defensive mood, sneering that “I don’t need you to tell me I’m in the band.” He bitches that the Man “can put you on the field, but you won’t get in the game,” an absurd complaint from a musician who has benefited from the corporate structure more than most. Again he seems to have forgotten that it wasn’t stuff like this track’s warmed-over dancehall (“Grab your condoms and Bacardi,” a guest toaster instructs) and trendy complaints about record clubs that grabbed his fans’ ears in the first place. On “Right the Wrong,” Prince comes dangerously close to Michael Jackson territory by equating his fight over publishing rights with the struggles of Native Americans.
It’s unlikely that “Dinner With Delores,” the first Chaos single, will prove one of the most durable among those copyrights: Even listeners who chortled at “Irresistible Bitch” and “Scarlet Pussy” (this reviewer among them)
are unlikely to find “Din-
ner”’s rhyme of “Delores” and “brontosaurus,” or its suggestion that the subject “introduce the carpet to something other than your knees,” worthy of one of this generation’s finest, most playful lyricists. The typically rich tunefulness can’t fully compensate for such shoddy, borderline-ugly writing—par-
ticularly from someone who has crafted a stack
of cleverer put-downs.
The studio sessions that display an obsessive drive exceeded only by that of Keith “No Sleep ’Til Mixdown” Richards do pay off through much of Chaos, however. Even when his lyrics appear deliberately puerile, Prince is often able to salvage a song with a cranked-up guitar (he plays a lot on these 11 cuts) or a catchy chorus. “I Like It There” is a metal-pop lust anthem that’s both slight and undeniable, the way “Raspberry Beret” was (“More than I love my hair!” he exclaims, in thrall of, presumably, new wife Mayte). “The Same December” takes a similar musical tack to extol the apocalyptic theology that fueled past classics like “The Cross”; in a nod to a more earthly deity, the vocal phrasing at song’s end (“Uh, you only know what you know”) is one of Prince’s subtlest Hendrix tributes.
Chaos ends with a big, lovely tease. Nearly orchestral guitars play the fanfare of “Had U,” which is less than a minute-and-a-half long. Prince delivers a kiss-off note that, over this truly promising gorgeousness, turns out to be the most articulate and moving thing on the record. It’s a frustrating ending, but one that trips you up. How mad, after all, can you get at someone who can summon such sounds, if only to drop them off in a cul-de-sac? This kind of nonclosure signals that Prince knows just how tossed-away—and how listenable—Chaos and Disorder is.CP