Review Summary: The perfect album to grind to, a confusing semi-serious rock soap opera, a combination of the two or something else entirely? your guess is as good as mine
He was one of the most celebrated and iconic figures in popular culture. A full time musician and songwriter and an incredibly vital one at that in his prime, having resonating influence that's still being felt today. And despite that far reaching influence he's had, at 39 studio albums, Prince has a pretty overwhelming discography that's pretty difficult to chip away at. Partially due to the fact that he was one of the least consistent artists of all time, with legendary classics like Purple Rain contrasted with commercial (and artistic) flops such as Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, or 3 hour exercises into why giving an artist past his prime full creative control isn't always as good an idea as it sounds (Emancipation, Crystal Ball). But also, because they're not made particularly convenient to listen to thanks to Prince's stance on streaming and digital downloading, as well as various fiascos with record companies.
So, after delving into the releases he's best remembered for; you've rocked out to Purple Rain, got your party on with 1999, indulged in Sign O' the Times and maybe had a listen to the Batman soundtrack perhaps simply for the novelty of the fact that Prince had music in a Batman movie, where do you go next? Considering you're pretty much spoiled for choice and admittedly, Prince's style starts to wear itself pretty thin in places, the Love Symbol album makes for a pretty good diamond in the rough.
If you're just glancing over Prince's discography, Love Symbol will probably jump out at you anyway, since it makes itself stand out for a couple of reason. The first and most glaring reason being… well, it has a name but… not… really? Obviously, I will just refer to it as "Love Symbol" in this review, as that's what it's most commonly known as, but it's real name is actually an unpronounceable symbol (the same one that Prince would later change his name to briefly, copyrighted as "Love Symbol #2", hence the album's nickname). The other reason, is that it's a rock opera… but again, not… really? To explain briefly, the album has a storyline, but you're gonna struggle to catch it, as all the segue tracks that helped explain the story bar two of them (which explain essentially nothing) were removed from the final tracklisting to make space for "I Wanna Melt with U
." There is actually a film that accompanies the album (3 Chains o' Gold), though it isn't necessarily tied together any better story-wise.
However, let's ignore the album's superficial quirks, as musically Love Symbol absolutely should not be ignored and certainly not underestimated. Initially, what's gonna make the listener hesitant is the running time. At 75 minutes there's a lot of time for Prince and his newly formed backing band The New Power Generation (who would be dropped after this album) to get wrong, and don't get me wrong this album is predictably far from perfect, but as an overall experience Love Symbol makes for a refreshing change in direction for Prince. Essentially a developed version of its predecessor Diamonds & Pearls, with a larger focus on the funk and R&B aspects of Prince's sound as well as taking invaluable influence from the burgeoning hip-hop scene at the time, complete with raps from Tony M, sample based melodies and turntable scratches. The opening number "My Name is Prince
" sets this up by pretty much incorporating all of these elements. This opening number bounces, slaps, goes hard, does pretty much everything that's slang for "this song is high energy and in your face."
Love Symbol is quite the gemini. You can never tell whether or not it's not taking itself seriously, or whether or not it secretly is. Despite the raw indulgent energy of the opener, the rest of the album's energy is released rather differently. The vibe Love Symbol gives off is sensual, sexual, quasi-romantic and quasi-religious. The reason I prefix the latter two themes as being "quasi" is because I've always found it rather difficult to take Prince's approach to either of those topics seriously. There are very spare few Prince songs that could be considered romantic that aren't overtly sexual in some way, an example from Love Symbol being the smooth, surprisingly tasteful reggae influenced track "Blue Light
." The song expertly demonstrates Prince's soulful middle range and briefly teases his falsetto, as well as his fantastic ear for making sure every component of the song is working in harmony and never overdoing itself. Of course, though musically it's got a tropical romantic flair to it, at it's core, it's about the intimacies of a couple's sex life and how their preferences differ. Which, to his credit, is a deep connection between lovers. But it's the fact that Prince was never one to write a song that sounded
like it was about sex, it was definitely
about sex and for that reason there's always a certain comedy to it, and it's present throughout the entirety of Love Symbol, with "Blue Light
" actually being one of the least raunchy numbers.
My latter point, that Love Symbol is "quasi-religious" is probably simultaneously a fair and unfair statement. Just from the album cover, you can see there's a kind of cult-ish thing going on with Prince playing guitar surrounded by a ring of women all dressed in yellow gowns, and it's further reinforced with the opening line of "All hail the New Power Generation." But as with the album's storyline, there isn't anything particularly clear, and it definitely doesn't jump out as a focal point besides the odd mention of God and of course the closing track "The Sacrifice of Victor
," who seems to be some kind of Jesus-esque character within the story. So, with that in mind, perhaps it's more accurate to say that Love Symbol is a spiritual album.
To backtrack a little, Love Symbol's strength lies in this comedic romance and its sleaze. The moments that are the strongest are definitely the album's more subdued moments. One of Prince's strongest skills as an artist, or rather more as a producer, was that in his prime, he very much underproduced his music and it really jumps out at you on early highlights like "The Morning Papers
." A slow ballad that makes prominent use of piano and brass motifs and is one of the best examples of romance that you just can't take seriously. Detailing rather charmingly a scandalous forbidden love brewing between Prince's character in the story (named Prince, as the opener will have let you know) and a young maiden (who I take to be Mayte Garcia's character). The even more subdued and sensual "Sweet Baby
," is a very different side to Prince's music, a reassuring slowdance with beautiful shimmering synthesisers, subtle piano and a soft performance from Prince really goes to show that Love Symbol is a jack of all trades, even a master of a couple of them.
The album has strengths outside of its charming more sensitive numbers, the anthemic "7
" manages to make a very strong initial impression despite not really giving itself much to work with outside of the repeated chorus, which uses the same musical progression as the verses. While "7
" in theory should collapse under its length considering how repetitive it is once you click that the verses and the choruses are pretty much identical outside of the Prince's vocal melody and phrasing, but interestingly enough it seems to be one of the songs that lends itself best to repeated listens. A number of the album's more hot-blooded club tracks, such as the aforementioned opener "My Name is Prince
" and the succeeding track "Sexy M.F.
" are infectiously catchy. Albeit, these comically sexual dance anthems, particularly the ridiculous "The Continental
", which I dare you to listen to with a straight face, essentially serve to make the fact that Love Symbol is supposedly a concept album virtually impossible to take seriously.
Love Symbol's weaknesses lie more or less in a couple of songs that just didn't need to be on the album, rather than any incoherence in the album's various musical adventures. The track that was inserted onto the album at the last minute "I Wanna Melt With U
", which resulted in Prince having to cull most of the segues, absolutely does not justify this decision. It's an endorphin driven funk jam, designed to grind to, which as mentioned several times earlier, Love Symbol is not lacking in. While head and shoulders above possessing the most banal lyrics on the album, it also comes complete with a very aesthetically displeasing electronic sample reminiscent of a wet fart (listen to the song and you'll know I'm not kidding). There's also the bizarre "3 Chains O' Gold
," which begins like a cheesy 80s stadium rock anthem and slowly morphs into an incoherent mess of ideas, suddenly going from a ballad not too dissimilar to the ones from earlier, back to a stadium rock track and then through a couple of Queen-type pseudo-opera sections.
A few duds from a 75 minute album, where Prince was working with a brand new backing bands and considering his lack of consistency on releases of similar length in the past (1999, Graffiti Bridge) is not surprising. With any pretense that Love Symbol is a perfect album out of your mind, it's far easier to anticipate what it has to offer and what it delivers. Featuring some of Prince's most spectacular vocal performances, from the acrobatic closer "The Sacrifice of Victor
," the controlled, calm and collected "Sweet Baby
" and the falsetto madness at the end of "Love 2 the 9's
" that would put plenty of divas to shame, while there's not a lot to take seriously, there sure is an awful lot to be impressed by and plenty to enjoy.
Potentially one of Prince's most underrated releases, there's just something… charming, about Love Symbol's quirky presentation and its baffling lack of sincerity as a serious idea. Its uniqueness within Prince's discography, despite more or less musically being a natural development of previous outings and it's goofy themes make this album a seriously good time. It's rather hard to describe the sensations that this album gives off and in that sense it couldn't have a more fitting title. It could give it names, I could call it "quasi-romantic" I could say that aspects of it make it feel "spiritual" I can refer to it as being sensual, but in the same way you can think of this album as being called "Love Symbol" or "O(+>", it's actually just an unpronounceable symbol and at the end of the day there are a number of things you could call it. But the main thing is, despite its initial impression, there's something really intriguing about it and it works, you can't tell whether or not you should be thinking, not thinking at all or some weird combination of the two.