Paisley Park/Warner Brothers 925577-1

The Prince perplex can be easily stated: how can someone who’s so in control be so out of control? How can the auteur of an entire scene and sound — he’s not merely made stars of his high school pals and sent most of the women performers he’s ever had a crush on into the Top Ten, he’s actually redefined the way the entire pop-conscious world thinks of Mary Tyler Moore Minneapolis — also be the auteur of Under the Cherry Moon? As a frequently successful writer, producer, performer (one wouldn’t say actor), director, and multiinstrumentalist, Prince hardly qualifies as an idiot savant. Sometimes, though, he seems an idiot.

The Prince perplex can be easily illustrated, too: it’s all right there in his new double album’s title song, “Sign ‘o’ the Times.” This improbable hit, a skeletal but insinuating record in the manner of “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss,” probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere without the paisley designer label, but that’s an indictment of Top 40 radio, not Prince. But what’s all this portentous blather about crack and gangs and “a big disease with a little name”? How about that hole in the ozone, layer-, over Antarctica? The tragedy of Beirut? Dioxin?

Prince wants a mulatto riot, a riot of his own. What he wouldn’t give for a Vietnam, a Nixon, a Kent State! Imagine the “Ohio” he could have written! All that Peppery dabbling was no mere stylistic homage. Prince doesn’t just want the sound of the 60s, he wants that decade’s significance. He craves the heady, cutting-edge alliance between pop music and pop culture, between new music and new consciousness. Problem is, he’s too dumb.

Well, that’s not fair, is it? Prince is brilliant, after all. Sign ‘o’ the Times is an accomplished, eclectic romp, easily as danceable as it is annoying, and perhaps his best record since his Dirty Mind, though its scattershot style and short attention span are more reminiscent of his recent work than of that breakthrough disc and the three records that followed it.

Dirty Mind is Prince’s best album, and his albatross. At the time, its funk-punk miscegenation seemed — hell, it was — important and fresh and seminal. Prince wanted to sustain that rush — wanted to stay meaningful — but his next record, Controversy, was best when it rehashed the funky-rock beats and sexual incitements of its predecessor. The singer’s attempt to move from provocateur to pundit (“Ronnie Talk to Russia”), however, just came off as dopey. “Am I black or white?” and “Am I straight or gay?” were questions that had a certain resonance within the context of Prince’s rhythmically captivating narcissism. But “Am I neoconservative or neoliberal?” just doesn’t cut it.

Prince, of course, could get smart and write songs that actually engage the world and its problems, rather than compose unthinking laundry lists like Sign ‘o’ the Times. He could pick coffee in Nicaragua with Jackson Browne, or invite Joe Strummer to contribute some lyrics (which didn’t do that much for B.A.D., actually), or just read the newspaper.

Maybe the songwriter knows better than that, though. Maybe he knows the audience isn’t there anymore — 60s rock’s sense of community, exaggerated to begin with, is fragmented. Prince wants to be avant-garde, but maybe he’s savvy enough to know that these days there’s no significant cultural motion to get out in front of. He still manages to offend some people — “Oh! Did he say ‘masturbate’?” asked Tipper — but it’s a hollow victory. He’ll never be Bob Dylan or John Lennon — he’ll never even be Donovan or Ringo.

In the absence of a viable movement (Prince, yawn, is for sex and against war), Minneapolis’s pop Midas has courted personal controversy through constant change: He’s collaborating with a band, now he’s breaking them up; he’s retired from touring, now he’s touring again; he’s emulating white psychedelic rock, now he’s funky again. For the Sign ‘o’ the Times cover, he even did himself up in drag; the album’s liner notes, in a blatant challenge to curmudgeons everywhere, conclude with a smiley face.

This taste for notoriety at any cost is central to Prince’s mesmerizingly self-indicting movie debut, Purple Rain: surely no writer/performer has ever gone to more trouble to make himself look like a jerk. That’s Prince. He’d rather be an asshole than risk someone forgetting him, even for a second.

This no doubt explains his anxious productivity. Edited to a single disc, Sign ‘o’ the Times could have been an extraordinary homage to 70s soul and funk and its 80s descendants: from the liquid swoon-croon of “Adore” to the P-Funk “mothership” jam meets the Chicago “house-music” hybrid of “Housequake.” Instead, the record wanders all over the place: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is Dirty Mind redux; “The Cross,” more dopey religious apocalypticism set to brooding, building, raga-rock guitars, ends with the title sung radio-jingle style; while “The Ballad of Dororthy Parker” even features a little Joni Mitchell tribute. It’s not funky enough in here. (A notable exception is “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” a live-in-Paris groove that certainly doesn’t argue for busting up the Revolution.)

Despite his much-heralded collaboration with the Revolution, Prince may be just too self-absorbed to lead a funk mob. His feverish declarations of romantic obsession frequently sound as if they’re addressed to a mirror — or as if his girlfriend would be better off if they were. In the near-pathological “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” he asks, “If I was your one and only friend would U run to me if somebody hurt U, even if that somebody was me?” Reads more like something from the Old Testament than from True Teen Romance.

Though there’s lots of this sort of creepy stuff — some of it definitely or at least possibly addressed to God — Sign ‘o’ the Times is often free of such earnest self-meditation. Expertly but not fussily produced, the record can be apealingly goofy: Prince modulates his voice into cartoon timbres and dips Dr. Seuss lines into the “brand new groove.” In addition to the title track, “Housequake,” “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “U Got the Look,” “It,” and “Hot Thing” are exuberant funk excursions.

Still, the excursions are round-trip, beginning and ending at familiar locations. This ain’t no Revolver. Like every Princely disc since Dirty Mind, the package doesn’t pose the question Prince desperately wishes it did: a breathless “what next?” His flamboyant cover-up attempts can’t disguise the fact that Prince answered that question years ago: he hasn’t a clue. He shouldn’t take it so hard, though. It’s just a sign of the times.