Sometimes U have to state the obvious: this should not have been Prince’s only UK number one under his own name (or glyph). But a check of the stats shows he rarely came that close – he was an undisputed star, archetype, household name, whose most remarkable and famous singles settled in the middle of the Top 10, or at its outskirts. This is the charts’ fault, not his: so much of the spice of 80s pop, its distinctive decadence, seems to loop back to Prince. He should have a chain of entries here.
In his heyday, as a creature of mad playground rumour, no priapic feat seemed weird enough for Prince: he is the only star I can remember where one whisper was that he was really a virgin, making it all up. What made Princely sex so mysterious and scary to the naïve teen mind was that he went way beyond the cartoon smut you got in rock music and the accessorised seductions of 80s soulboy pop. Not just in terms of kink, but in his evocation of the force of desire, its power – playful and frightening – to mutate and twist reality. The line that sums up his whole deal and appeal, for me, is in that magnificent first verse of “When Doves Cry”: “Animals strike curious poses / They feel the heat, the heat between me and you”.
But that isn’t the version of Prince we get here – no vogueing fauna in sight. This is a man devoted and restrained, singing to and for his wife-to-be and playing it as sweet as he possibly can. “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” is a high, heady, perfume-drunk ballad drawing from the well of Thom Bell’s work with the Delfonics and Stylistics. Prince disciplines himself, staying almost throughout at the absolute top of his register, a high-wire act he pulls off without a hitch but also without any moment which completely sells the decision. The music is opulent boudoir funk, the best line – “How can I get through days when I can’t get through hours?” – is very good, and there’s a casual classiness to the record missing from most of what we’ve covered lately.
Even so this is a good single, not a great one – and as it turned out, one of his last hit singles. That – as well as all the name-change foofaraw – makes “Beautiful Girl” a slippery record. On the one hand, well-behaved enough to become a slow-dance standard; on the other, overwhelmed by the high tide of its maker’s eccentricity. In his day the strangeness, the seduction and the unearthly pop instinct had created uncanny fusions, curious poses indeed. The pose on this record is well-struck, but more ordinary, its only real problem the many things I’d always play instead of it.