Ball of Confusion

In 1997, the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and Currently Known as Sir Hieroglyph was lying low. It's all relative, sure, but '97 was the first year since 1983 that hadn't seen a single disc released by the Funky Pop Polymath. There were reasons, of course; there always are. First and foremost, the Artist was creatively exhausted: The late-'96 triple-CD Emancipation tapped his

reserves, and his Jam of the Year tour was his first major domestic roadwork in years. Rumor has it that his first child was born with cloverleaf skull syndrome; the child died shortly after birth. (To date, the Artist has not commented on the tragedy.)

But it's a new year, and Prince is back -- sort of. Although there won't be a new studio album until 1999, Prince has plugged the gap. And when he plugs a gap, he really plugs it. His new release, Crystal Ball, is a four-disc set that includes 30 songs of vault material and an entirely new album of acoustic material, The Truth. In copping to his own apocrypha, Prince proves once again that he's pop music's most prolific composer. Crystal Ball is a cloudy sprawl, a massive musical mess that oscillates between outstanding songs and tunes that should have been left out in the cold. How versatile. How frustrating.

Actually, the frustration began even before this set hit stores. Crystal Ball was supposed to mark the debut of the Artist's long-awaited direct-marketing scheme, which he hatched after severing ties with major-label EMI. All through 1997, he took pre-orders for Crystal Ball via his toll-free number (800-NEW-FUNK) and web site, charging $50 for product, shipping and handling. At the last minute, though, the Artist struck a deal with the Blockbuster and Musicland chains, and by February of this year, the album began appearing on shelves across the nation, priced at an alarmingly affordable $29.95. Fans who had pre-ordered the set at $50 weren't so pleased, and the hasty announcement that they would receive a free additional CD of the Prince-strumental score for the Kamasutra ballet struck many as weak consolation. Rival music chains locked out of the deal weren't thrilled either. But as usual, the market found a way; Tower Records and HMV stores began retailing Crystal Ball in the $50 range, prompting speculation that they were simply buying the set at Blockbuster or Musicland and then marking it up for resale.

This would be no more than a moderately entertaining tale of a fledgling entrepreneur -- the kind of Widgets-R-Us illustration a college professor might use on the first day of a freshman business class -- if it weren't for the fact that Crystal Ball is stuffed full of music -- almost four hours' worth, in fact. Prince's past ten years have been fraught with aesthetic dead ends: sour and didactic songs that raged against publishers, record labels, retail chains and even his fans. Now, he is rolling out what he was holding back during those ranting years, and much of it is worth raving about.

The album kicks off with "Crystal Ball," which was to be the title track of a triple album rejected by Warner Bros. back in 1987. (The collection was subsequently retooled and released that same year as the double CD Sign o' the Times.) Over a sparse, slow groove adorned with whistles, canned drums and on-again/off-again full instrumental backing, Prince stretches out, delivering a hypnotic vocal about love, lust and loss. The tune, which has circulated for years among bootleggers under its alternate title "Xpert Lover," is Prince at his most hermetic and difficult -- and also at his most rewarding. The other songs from 198687 are equally strong. There's "Good Love," a sunny piece of pop craft that was unjustly buried on the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack; the delightful "Movie Star," which proves incontrovertibly that Prince was always the model for Morris Day's addled ladies' man; and "CloreenBaconSkin," a lengthy, live-in-the-studio bass workout with improvised lyrics. The only chunks of pyrite from this golden period are "Crucial," a swollen attempt at balladry, and "Dream Factory," its anti-drug lyric sabotaged by a cluttered arrangement.

A full third of Crystal Ball is composed of outtakes from 199394, when Prince was recording a musical called Glam Slam Ulysses. All in all, these songs are everything outtakes should be, offering die-hard devotees interesting glimpses of a prolific artist's creative process. Conversely, given that Crystal Ball will end up mostly in the hands of said hard-core fans, it doesn't make sense to pawn off "Tell Me How U Want to Be Done" as a new song when any Artist obsessive knows that it's merely the second half of 1992's "The Continental." The dragging blues-rock composition "The Ride" and the bombastic "Strays of the World" have been bootlegged for years, and they're not improving with age. No better is the quartet of previously released Glam Slam Ulysses songs ("P Control," "Days of Wild," "So Dark" and "Get Loose") represented here either by superfluous live versions or anemic dance-club remixes.

Dangling off the rear of Crystal Ball is The Truth, a dozen new songs that are bound to be eclipsed by the larger set -- which is a shame. Full of passionate singing and compelling guitar work, this mostly acoustic offering combines deep-blue pop and foolish noodling. It's an intimate bookend that has the feel of an artist reconnecting with his muse. And while it may be minor work, it suggests that the Artist may yet temper his restless energy and workaholic drive with direction and focus.

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Ben Greenman