Two towering '80s icons get back on track but with some way to go

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A Brace Apart

As the decade that birthed rock’n’roll drew to a close Prince Rogers Nelson (June 7, 1958, Minneapolis) and Steven Patrick Morrissey (May 22, 1959, Manchester) were born 11 months and 3,876 miles apart. Both would make their UK Top 40 debuts in 1983. Prince, again, was first: “1999”, No 25, January. Ten months later, The Smiths’ “This Charming Man” also reached No 25. Prince found a route for black pop out of funk and disco’s apparent dead end into the new decade, with a music whose luxury and ambition chimed perfectly with the lavishness of New Pop (Frankie, ABC et al); his co-opting of white sources?Beatles, Todd Rundgren, new wave?a neat inversion of the New Pop elite’s love of black forms?funk, soul, disco. The Smiths, with Morrissey as solipsism incarnate, took Oscar Wilde, Edwyn Collins and Pete Shelley into uncharted waters, and might have been specifically designed as the most arch antithesis of all this shiny show.

Untouchable icons of the decade, both men ended near flawless runs in ’88 (Prince’s Lovesexy, Morrissey’s solo debut, Viva Hate). Since then, both found themselves eventually drifting between labels, perversely hiding their best material on B-sides or unloved albums. Most spectacularly, Prince recently made a staggering, largely just piano and voice album available only as an extra disc with a three-CD live set available through his fan site.

Now, after a run of profoundly mediocre records and experiments with independence, former ‘slave’ Prince is back on the corporate chain gang with Columbia/Sony. Morrissey, after a seven-year silence, beaches up at Sanctuary, rock’s Dr Barnado’s, his gang of thick-skinned, workaday toughs still, remarkably, plodding along behind him, both giving him wings and dipping even his grandest endeavours in lead.

Prince, on the other hand, has dispensed with his band almost entirely, the raggle taggle credits of recent albums replaced by the gloriously monomaniacal “All instruments and voices by PRINCE”. Where, say, The Rainbow Children felt like an endless jamboree, Musicology has focus and lightness of touch. Morrissey, who could just about manage a one-finger piano solo, will never be in that position: as if somehow handicapped and tragically dependent on carers, he is an eternal collaborator. More than that, he is doggedly content to work with musicians who are never going to challenge him, and a reputed suspicion of expensive session players has latterly prevented the use of real strings. Here, the cheesy keyboard string lines either undermine the grand ambitions of “I Have Forgiven Jesus” and “Come Back To Camden” or tint them with a shabbily English, perfectly Morrissey, wonky Wurlitzer pathos.

As Morrissey relentlessly pursues the singular business of ‘being Morrissey’, so he has become his own genre. Yet for all the talk of how ‘influential’ he is, his influence is pretty hard to spot. Prince’s, meanwhile, is everywhere. As surely as American R&B has become the lingua franca of pop, so through that runs a broad vein of Prince; indeed hegemonic cool rulers N*E*R*D (/The Neptunes) have just made an album that picks up where the genre-melding of Around The World In A Day left off. ‘Prince’ is everywhere, too, on Musicology, which might be a primer for his various selves, so redolent are individual tracks of previous songs. The deliciously dislocated gauzy needlebeats of standout “What Do U Want Me To Do?” recall nothing so much as “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”; the deep digi-funk of “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” is “Gett Off” right down to a brief echo of melody; the wan “Life O’The Party” is the dark side of “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”. This cannibalism feels more like nostalgia than retread; the genius indulging in well-earned self-referential game-playing. Is it disappointing or dignified that he doesn’t feel the need to compete in the quest for the most futuristic beat? Then again, maybe he is but he’s just not sharing the fruits yet: Prince was always autistically prolific and Musicology might just as likely represent some stuff from the cupboard that hangs together well as the coalface of wherever his muse is digging right now.

Morrissey’s muse, of course, digs in the same, small, intermittently fertile patch of damp ground. The second half of You Are The Quarry sags with the weight of four songs which reference court cases or “uniformed whores” or “Northern leeches” (Mike Joyce, presumably). You’d think he’d been turfed out onto the street by the bailiffs and publicly birched. Similarly, it would seem a song called “How Could Anyone Possibly Know How I Feel?” (a plodding, very Southpaw Grammar grind) must be the product of a psyche permanently stunted in pouting adolescence, though there’s raw and clich