Sex ‘n’ Salvation : Check List ****<i> Great Balls of Fire</i> ***<i> Good Vibrations</i> **<i> Maybe Baby</i> *<i> Running on Empty </i>

****PRINCE. “Lovesexy.” Paisley Park.

Pop’s most prolific and inventive best-seller of the ‘80s continues to move in strange but wondrous ways. “Lovesexy,” which is due in stores Monday, is at once Prince’s most playful-sounding and serious-minded album.

“Welcome to the new power generation,” Prince says before the first note of music. “The reason why my voice is so clear is there’s no smack in my brain.”

Since the title track from last year’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times” LP was in part a disillusioned look at the destructiveness of drugs, that reference isn’t surprising.

But anyone who knows Prince only by his long-standing “Controversy"-al “Dirty Mind” image will be caught off guard by the recurring spiritual theme of this unusually personal nine-song album.

In “Eye No” and “Anna Stesia,” Prince sets forth two of the boldest proclamations of faith by a major American rock artist since Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming.”


Sample line from “Eye No”: “I know there is a devil because he talks so loud / He makes you do things your friends do--hang out with the crowd / But my Lord, He’s so quiet when he calls your name.”

There have been traces of a spiritual component in some of Prince’s past songs, like “God” and “The Cross,” but they tended to be expressions of sweet surrender and devotion in the reverential tradition of gospel music.

In stepping to the pulpit this time, Prince, working with most of the same musicians who joined him on “Sign,” has not abandoned his dance-floor exuberance. The music jumps --it’s some of the happiest and freest of his career, much of it mixing sounds of night life and the street in giddy audioscapes.

Don’t get the idea that the Minneapolis provocateur has abandonded his galvanizing ways. The nude shot on the cover may be his way of dramatizing the intimate revelation of the album’s key themes--but it’s also a way to guarantee extra attention. The danger in the cover is that it becomes a cause celebre and detracts from the album’s seriousness of purpose.

Much of the music is built around a radical gospel vision reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s sex ‘n’ salvation testimonials. If some of the songs would be welcome at a church social, there’s enough R-rated imagery in others to keep the LP out of most rectory libraries.

Among the latter: the slow dancing “When 2 R in Love,” the only hold-over from Prince’s funny and funky “Black” album, the widely publicized collection whose release was postponed in favor of this one.

Through most of “Lovesexy,” the beat continues relentlessly--sometimes (as in “Dance On”) in a mocking way that laments society’s reluctance to deal with troubling issues.

In the somewhat documentary style of “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” the track looks at a society under seige: heartbreak in foreign battles (“Grenade launcher roars in a television sky / Tell me how many young brothers must die”) and on American streets (“Little talk Johnny blew the big score / The gang nailed his feet to a wooden floor”).

In the midst of this frantic pace, the tender “I Wish U Heaven” seems all the more endearing. With much of the showstopping intimacy and grace of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” the track stands as a moment of refuge and quiet among the tales of heaven and hell.

If Prince has always been a bit too radical for Grammy voters, “Lovesexy"--his most focused and consistently appealing album since “Purple Rain"--may finally be the work that brings him the record industry’s top award.