Diagnosis: clear-cut case of a canonized double album that most obviously should have been a single album. Treatment:
~Delete “Free,” “All the Critics Love U in New York” and “International Lover” immediately. Yes, I’m certain of it, he’s definitely masturbating throughout those songs. (“International Lover” seems to be the inspiration for Justin Timberlake’s “Another Song (All Over Again)” which is just as long and lugubrious.)
~Tighten up the Kraftwerk-meets-Prince “Automatic,” which is truly undeserving of its place as the album’s longest song.
~Tighten up “Lady Cab Driver,” because let’s be honest, we’re all waiting for that bridge where Prince fucks the titular character, unloading his her and the world’s baggage with each thrust, and the ensuing synth-cum-guitar attack. The rest is a competent groove at best.
Actually, most of these songs are competent grooves built out of drum machines and a synth line (ie. “Delirious” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”) and if we’re lucky, a passionate Prince performance on vocals (ie. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.”), and I kind of hated this album the first two or three times I heard it for that reason, though I’ve warmed up to it considerably since.
But this would have gotten a B+ regardless if I didn’t have those songs on the account of the opening 1-2-punch alone. “Little Red Corvette” has the album’s most direct choruses, with the melody of the title’s words and the guitar underneath, but the verses are a dream as well, with the shuffling drum as the sonic equivalent of you dragging yourself home after the party of the title track and starry-eyed synths guiding you there.
And the title track is even better, like being trapped in a pinball machine and you have to dance your way out (that drum machine sound is one of my favorite things from the 80s ever, though only a select few musicians could get away with it, it seems; Prince uses them again on “Something in the Water”). And unlike “Automatic,” the song deserves its length, starting sparse and slowly adding more and more backing vocals until it becomes a full-fledged party. Two key moments: the descending line after “I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast” that speeds it way through existence, and “I got a lion in my pocket and baby, he’s ready to ROAR!”
The last thing I want to say is that I find it odd that after Prince got booed off stage opening for the Rolling Stones (despite doing a much more down-to-earth and macho-accessible set than normal, and despite already having garnered modest critical and commercial success), he made an album that – with the exception of crossover hit “Little Red Corvette” – was further from the plot than ever before … and came out with his biggest commercial success at the time; you guys have no idea what you really want.