Art Official Age (2014)
After an absence of four years (the longest gap in his discography) Art Official Age was Prince’s high-profile comeback, seducing attentions of the press with Warner Bros reunion headlines. It is a truth universally acknowledged that an ageing rocker in the possession of a hyped comeback album is always likely to disappoint. Fires dampen; tastes get conservative; weirdness dissipates. The spirit may be willing but the flesh isn’t match-fit and innovation gets dashed on risk-averse rocks while session musicians clockwatch. The script was written to disappoint but Prince said “Fuck. That. Shit!” Or whatever the nearest non-sweary equivalent is (“Forget. That. Applesauce?”) and delivered a sci-fi themed concept album which surprises at every turn. Space ballad Clouds is a future-funk shuffler that sees the singer being woken up from a cryogenic state after 45 years, into an age that “does not require time”. And it’s not just the singer that’s visiting from another era: relationship advice; a plaintive guitar solo; young, attractive protégé; Linn drum. All your 80s favourites reworked into something new. Not your bag? He released a safer band-led album on the same day too so fill your boots.
Why does Prince’s seventh album attract all the Beatles comparisons when it’s his eighth that opens with this amyl nitrate cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)? The Fab Four is certainly strong in this one. We stand at the start of a quick-fire round of four songs in nine minutes so there’s barely time to take it all in, but it’s the only album track, other than the incidental Venus De Milo and Do U Lie?, to sport the full force of Clare Fischer’s orchestra. Prince asked the newly-hired composer, fresh from collaborating on The Family album, to add orchestration to every song on Parade except Kiss. But his contribution largely wasn’t used. We hear some brief snatches on Anotherloverholenyohead and some violas on I Wonder U, but Christopher Tracy’s (née Wendy’s) Parade gets the full orchestral shebang and it’s a glorious symphony in miniature. A rousing clarion call from a pantheon of forgotten gods, who whoop and holler on their merry train out of oblivion. It serves as a tantalising yet overselling trailer for the Under the Cherry Moon film, which would never be able to deliver on these cinematic promises.
Unreleased (1983) / Apollonia 6 (1984)
Firstly, let’s expunge the Apollonia 6 version from the record. It’s the only official release (appearing on their album, a single, and in Purple Rain) but is a pale karaoke cover of the demo featuring Vanity, who, god rest her soul, was never a gifted singer yet is Aretha Franklyn compared to her replacement. She also benefits from having Prince’s vocals buried deep in the mix like carbon steel rebar. Sex Shooter (a play on a six shooter revolver) is one of Prince’s songs that gains an androgynous power by being sung by a female lead. Prince imploring us to kiss the gun and blow him away would have been too cartoon sexual, even for him. Although odds on it was originally written with that intention. By making Vanity the dangerous, love-shooting weapon rescues it from parody and makes you yearn for that second Vanity 6 album that never was.
During a two-year period of my life I listened to nothing but Colombian music and have since built up a tolerance against any song with corazón in the lyrics (which is roughly 100% of all cumbia). So Te Amo Corazón was ready to fall into my blind-spot and then – oh my god and then – Prince scat duets with his guitar and *kisses fingertips* mi corazón estalla! He could fill a whole album of this 30 second flight into the sublime and beautiful, and it would still end too soon. Salma Hayek directed the video whom he repays by hitting on her via her infant daughter on Valentina. He had obviously created something too smooth for this world and had to readdress the cosmic balance.
For You (1978)
Prince’s first album-closing track is a belter. Until this point on For You he’s been prevented from releasing his inner rock demon but the shackles come off for the finale. If the guitar solo on My Love is Forever was a warning shot, then I’m Yours is Prince’s Butch Cassidy moment. From the off he comes out guns blazing, razing the neat Stevie Wonder-shaped box the marketing department were crafting, with a scream that Robert Plants his flag in the ashes declaring a new king has been born.
The cream of Emancipation can be found on its second disc, and the crème de la crème is Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife, Prince’s wedding gift to Mayte. Like most weddings the previous hour or two have been a love-in of sweet sentiment, tired tropes and readings that range from the rote to the ridiculous – but it’s all been leading to this moment: the vows. And as soon as they start, the album-standard plastic drums get lost under a tsunami of swelling strings, backing vocals and bridal balladry. Out of all the weddings I’ve been to, only my own surpasses this listening experience. And even that may be too close to call.
Around the World in a Day (1985)
Our journey up The Ladder starts with Wendy & Lisa-composed strings, lifted from the track Our Destiny. According to Around the World in a Day’s artwork we’re still in the outro to Pop Life, but both the CD and vinyl track markers suggest otherwise. Either way the string interlude allows us to take stock and chalk our hands before we ascend a stairway to heaven on rungs made out of the drums from Purple Rain. Clouds of reverb, alto sax and gospel fill your lungs, and a deep sense of cleansing salvation passes through your bronchioles and enters your bloodstream. Some days this makes feel like I’m in Jacob’s dream; on other days I feel like I’m listening to The Cross on cough syrup. I can’t decide which feeling I prefer.
The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
A couple of years ago I saw Stan Douglas’ film Luanda-Kinshasa in an art gallery. Or at least I saw part of it. The full thing is six hours long and consists solely of a jazz-fusion funk band jamming in retro garb. The film’s music was captivating – no peaks or troughs, just a simmering, Escher groove that could unfold forever. Musical manna. If the gallery wasn’t about to close I could have easily lasted the whole 360 minute duration. When I listen to the smokey lounge jazz of When the Lights go Down I feel similarly in awe. I just don’t want it to stop. The intro is two and a half minutes long (four of The Vault’s ten tracks will have already finished by this point) but there’s no rush – It’s a delight to bask in the sound of a band at the top of their game. And when the vocals do arrive it’s like the loving embrace of a long lost friend. Some of Prince’s creations floor you with their otherworldliness and others hit you with their virtuosic flawless execution. When the Lights go Down is a textbook example of the latter.
Yes THAT Alphabet St. The one even folk who don’t like Prince sing along to. Don’t mistake my triple-digit listing as apathy. There’s just a lot of competition. Alphabet St is a day-glo, gangly puppy. A harlequin skeleton where every joint’s an elbow. How does it even stand upright, let alone jerk its body like a horny pony would? Being one of his most-played hits you forget just how damn weird it is. Even without the video it’s an all-syrup Super Squishee ride through kids TV, brought to you by the letters L, S and D… or W, T and F. But not G. Ingrid Chavez famously misses out the seventh letter while reciting the alphabet. On a web Q&A in the early 2000s I remember Prince being asked about the omission and his reply was Ingrid had something else on her mind. Everyone got the intended drift. But maybe what really distracted her was the sheer lunacy happening around her. Is that a cuica? Sure, why not? The 12″ version is even more chaotic and subtitled “This Is Not Music… This Is A Trip” but if this remix is any kind of trip it’s a self-indulgent one through his Fairlight synthesizer’s sound banks. Without vocals the relentless button-bashing is too masturbatury to fully love. An unreleased and more restrained part 2 is slightly better, yet both parts are infinitely preferable to what would become of Alphabet St in later live shows. The swift morph into a sped-up country hoedown is an ignoble fate to befall such a loveable rogue. Shine on you crazy cartoon diamond.
HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
Not to be confused with Resolution or The Revolution, Revelation is a late-career high-point, initially released on the internet in 2014 but with its pharaoh and Hebrew references I suspect its origins date back to The Rainbow Children. Snatches of sax float in on the wind alongside half-formed memories of jazz and ennui. It’s all very solemn. A track for deep introspection. So we’re off-balance when Prince asks “can I play with it now?” and a soul-bare guitar solo reaches us from whichever plain he now resides. That moment floors me every time. If the album had ended there, Revelation could have launched a thousand myths and conspiracy theories. It would have made a stellar swan song. The Doppler effect at the end sounds like his voice ascending the heavens. Instead we’re brought back down to earth by Big City with it’s bluntly resolute ‘that’s it!’ sign-off. Who would have thought a song with Zappa aspirations could be the prosaic choice?
Unreleased (1983) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
In 2017, folk began to reappraise Electric Intercourse’s history after the previously assumed to be non-existent studio version made a surprise appearance. For years a live bootleg had been kicking around and was thought to be the final version intended for the Purple Rain album, taken from the same concert as I Would Die 4 U, Baby I’m A Star and Purple Rain (and like that closing trio overdubbed shortly after). Was the newly-released studio mix recorded before or after that performance? Was it intended as a demo or a replacement? I would have thought it’s an early draft as it’s a nice curio but the live performance is where the spine tingles are. The question is moot anyway. Does it matter which version ultimately got replaced by The Beautiful Ones? The real question is how the hell did Prince write 180 better songs than this?
Before today I’d never closely listened to Papa. The child-abuse theme was always too ALL CAPS. The smacks too visceral. It took until now to realise the abusive father commits suicide and that part is written in nine foot steel letters! Previously I’d obviously averted my ears like a cowardly citizen and wrapped myself in the comforting duvet of underwater blues. Self-preservation. And that’s coming from someone blessed with a trauma-free upbringing. How those less fortunate perceive the song is beyond my ken. Papa feels like it should have an “if you were affected by issues discussed” helpline number tagged on the end but instead has the next best thing: the NPG pierce the storm clouds with a 30 second blast of healing sunlight while Prince ties a rainbow on it. A welcome chance to rearrange your face before you enter the next track… which is Race. Why did I ever think this was his sex album?
The Truth (1998)
Knock back Prince’s advances and with acoustic ninjutsu he’ll rub your nose in all the things you’re set to miss out on. This is what you could have won: a trip to the Champs-Élysées; your name whispered; a shared martini and a dance to the songs of Henry Mancini till dawn. The consolation prize is having your name forever canonised in Prince’s oeuvre so I think Dionne will bounce back. And who is she? Dionne Farris, the vocalist on Arrested Development’s Alphabet St-sampling Tennessee, believes it’s about her and has written an as-yet-unreleased book and album about their friendship. She received Dionne in the post from him in 1997 and believes the line “did u get the tape I sent u?” in One of Your Tears references this. Even if she’s mistaken it’s a shame those two Truth tracks weren’t sequenced together as they make a great pairing. One wears a mask of I’m-doing-great forced joviality; the other sketches the broken-voiced moment the mask slips. Perfection crafted from rejection. Along with classics like When Doves Cry, The Beautiful Ones and How Come You Don’t Call Anymore, Dionne makes the convincing case that a spurned Prince is the best Prince.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
One of Prince’s most beautiful and forgotten ballads. As intimate as anything on his One Nite Alone album. Ani DiFranco is used sparingly like a delicate spice, while Prince doesn’t so much tickle the ivories but uses acupuncture pressure points to lull them into deep, melancholic bliss. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote “to be in love is to create a religion whose god is fallible”. I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore is the sound of the ashes from the last remaining temple drifting on a cold, indifferent breeze.
I always remember the Batman album being more bleak than it truly is, and that’s down to the tone set by the opening track. With the removal of Dance With the Devil it’s up to The Future to tip the scales away from goofball comedy and love ballads, towards something more befitting of a Burton-esque gothic Gotham. It’s a somber aperitif. The salt added to cooking wine to stop chefs from polishing the bottle off. Prince, with his face lit from below, tells us he’d rather drink razor blades from a paper cup, while a choir of lost souls harmonise amid off-key and off-time Crystal Ball strings. Is this another tale from his long, dark, pilled-up night of the soul? Anna Stasia without the rapture? If so, it appears ecstasy’s side effects can include visions of a dystopian future and spiders-in-the-brain synths.
Art Official Age (2014)
U Know kicks off a run of superb but similar-sounding, futuristic RnB on Art Official Age that’s easy to overlook following the oxygen-hogging opening quartet. It brings your blood pressure down after the eurodance, sci-fi plot twists, emotional breakdowns and whatever The Gold Standard is. A chance to reboot after your mental bandwidth gets choked. On its day U Know can be my favourite song from this seductive middle-section but loses points by lifting the beat and moans from Mila J’s Blinded – a sample so unusually large for Prince that it almost tips the song into being a cover. In the dancehall world it would be labelled a version. Ignoring the ethical questions this raises (the first Mila heard of U Know was when she discovered it on Soundcloud) Prince adds enough top-spin to send it into the heavens. The verses hammer out a staccato flow of robotic legalese, which could be the iTunes terms and conditions for all I can make out, but explode into a chromatic firework display of light and neo-soul adoration in the chorus. I have detailed thoughts on how this song fits into the album narrative, which I won’t bore you with here, but I do believe all this relationship legal-wrangling and hitting on attached women is part of Mr Nelson’s old life before being woken in the future. Before he stopped believing in possessions. Before he learnt there’s no such words as me or mine. Although Mila J will probably tell you different.
The Black Album (1987) / Lovesexy (1988)
Poor When 2 R in Love. A song with no true home. The sweet and lullaby-like ballad (his last tailor-made side 1 closer) always sounded like it wandered into the wrong neighbourhood on the Black Album, (even more so when nestled up to Bob George on the eventual CD release) and on Lovesexy it was the refugee stowaway, sheltering under I Wish U Heaven’s protective wing. Two places to bed for the night but no sense of belonging. At one point it was even scheduled to be the title track of a compilation of ballads. You can’t say Prince didn’t try to find its forever home. But who needs an album setting when your Linn drum snaps like teenage hearts, and your synths caress with the sound of the universe purring. On second thoughts, When 2 R in Love probably found it’s rightful home on the flip side of the Scandalous 7″ single. Two drum machine halves forming a perfect yin yang of love and lust.
Unreleased (1993) / Crystal Ball (1998)
The Ride appears on a multitude of live merch but the only official audio release was on Crystal Ball’s third disc – a fierce squall of live guitar realness amid a sea of Pro Tools tinkerings. It’s half the length of The Undertaker’s ur-recording but crams in the same amount of cocksure swag at double the intensity. Prince rides in on his Purple Rain motorbike, offers to take you to Lake Minnetonka, showboats with a few wheelies and then zooms off in a cloud of dirt and blues. In The Ride’s own words, if you like it real slow, the Undertaker version’s got days. But if you want to take the short cut, Crystal Ball knows the way.
Long before Disney weaponised the phrase, Letitgo reached number 30 in the UK charts and was one of the few Prince songs I enjoyed before I became a fan. At the time I may not even have been aware who sung it, but it has merged with memories of long summers in the early to mid-90s, where R&B and soulful hip-hop drifted out of car windows like cigarette smoke. Even now I find it indelibly linked to tunes like SWV’s Right Here and Domino’s Ghetto Jam. Which raises an interesting dilemma. Do I rate these songs’ greatness on past feelings or their continued power to surprise and delight? I’m leaning more towards the latter. I still enjoy Letitgo but its moment in the sun has passed. Now it serves as a cloud of nostalgic fuzziness to sink into and reminisce. Nostalgia’s a fun drug but it will mess your life up. Just say no, kids.
There’s not much adorning this big tall wall but its foundations are dug deep. Real deep. The music may consist of little more than a drumbeat and vocals; the lyrics, especially in their first draft, may be possessive, dark and even psychopathic. But once that hook is in your head it’s there for life. One of the reasons the song never saw the light of day was down to its personal and negative lyrics. They describe a polygamous Prince wanting to build a wall around then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin so she can’t leave him. A rewrite the following year portrayed a slightly healthier relationship but there’s no altering the main premise of imprisonment – it’s baked in. Isaac Newton once wrote “we build too many walls, and not enough bridges”: a quote Prince may have had in mind when he originally planned for this song to start the Graffiti Bridge album, sitting next but one to the title track. Isolation to connection within the opening triplet. It would have done wonders for The Kid’s character arc but I guess the motivational, sloganeering Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got was more in keeping with the film’s final direction. You may prefer Prince’s high-energy cheerleading, but give me him on his mountaintop every time, banging his drum and plotting against the villagers down below like an angry witch.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Mellow by name and fully-reclined horizontal by nature, this song is a sultry sweet ballad, softly kissed with flutes and horns, but takes a swift X-rated turn towards the end. Another kink in the narrative that Prince turned PG post-2000. Mellow is one of his smooth seduction jams like Mr Goodnight or Underneath the Cream but despite oozing confidence and class it has a touch of the vulnerable If I Was Your Girlfriend. The begging and anxiety’s gone but the incessant desire to please remains the same. For you naked I will dance a little comical minuet. Will that get you off? Then tell me what will. If you desire I’ll shed my attire? Anything to get you wet.
Unreleased (1983) / Pandemonium (1990)
In nature there are foods high in fat, and foods high in sugar, but one of the only substances that’s high in both is breast milk. That’s why chocolate and other manufactured concoctions are so addictive – our bodies crave that sweet mother’s milk. Prince’s Chocolate is also insanely addictive but for the exact opposite reason. The funk is tight and lean. And his Jamie Starr persona (an “old nasty” James Brown impersonator asking us if we want to see his tootsie roll) is saltiness personified. Chocolate’s official release was by The Time in 1990 but the only band input is Morris on vocals. Everyone else you hear is either Prince, Wendy, Lisa or Jill. My cassette tape of Pandemonium has been lost to time so I often forget a version other than the Prince-sung demo exists. Yet regardless of lead vocalist, the song is double-dipped funk on a stick. Luxury confectionary without the sickly aftertaste of his later Chocolate Box.
The Joker goes all Minority Report by putting his thoughts on trial and finding himself guilty for future crimes. The result is industrial rock hewn from rough onyx. Other than a short section in Batdance, Electric Chair is the only time on the album Prince lets loose with the axe, making it his last rock song of the 80s. But the funk is still close to hand. While you’re left reeling from the one-two punch of staccato chorus and sledgehammer kick drum, the bass nips in to mop up the blood and massage your back. A William Orbit remix, released on The Future single the following year, largely dispenses with the guitars and could be left in 1990 as far as I’m concerned, but you should definitely search out the unreleased, instrumental remix which ups the kick drum voltage to lethal levels. As did Electric Chair’s live debut on Saturday Night Live.
HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
The last track on Prince’s penultimate album is a gorgeous waif of a song, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics that invite you to pan for meaning. Here’s my interpretation. The lyrics reference Richie Havens and Woodstock. Havens’ opening set at Woodstock in 1969 ended with an improvisation of the old Spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. In June, after referring to Havens’ voice, Prince begins to repeat the title “sometimes I feel like…” but then switches to thoughts about his own birth, and then to a birthday somebody famous is having today. As June was written in June it’s fair to assume the birthday is his own, which is just “another full moon” to him as his religion doesn’t observe them. But even people who don’t celebrate the date must still take stock when another year gets added to the account. I think this song describes Prince daydreaming while cooking pasta on his 57th and final birthday. The Richie Havens song was playing either in the kitchen or on his mind’s turntable, and his mind wanders to thoughts of his deceased mother. You’re off somewhere being free, while I starve, in the lonesome cold. That line alone makes me want to shed a single Sinéad tear. As does hearing his version of Motherless Child where he changes the lyrics from “a long, long way from home” to “’cause you left me on my own”. The song and daydream end with the pasta burning. But the goosebumps remain long after the album’s finished.
On first glance Positivity seems the least positive song on the album. The opposite of an uplifting closer. It lacks the ecstatic abandon of Lovesexy or the neon “yeah yeah yeah” lunacy of Alphabet St. Even the brooding darkness of Anna Stasia quickly ascends into beatitude. The ballads soothe, and Dance On moves but Positivity sits stern-faced, delivering affirmations in a downbeat voice over a mono-beat – a perfect inversion of the album opener, Eye No, which radiates “no”s over shapeshifting, ebullient funk. But sometimes the sweetest nuts are the toughest to crack. Concentrate on Positivity’s snare drum like a black dot on one of those optical illusions and the contradictions fade as the cheat codes to everlasting happiness begin to reveal themselves. The marimba dances in your peripheries. Wild beasts play in the marginalia. Moods drift. Trees fall. Walls collapse. Don’t get distracted. Hold on to your soul, you’ve got a long way to go. Karmic tornadoes buffet you, as do questions and temptations, but stay focused on the tantric beat. Are those military drums? The snare is now a cowbell. When did that happen? I thought I asked you to concentrate on it? When the beat finally disappears look around you. You’re now bathing in the waters of your baptism, listening to the same synths that greeted you on the start of your Lovesexy journey. This time they’re not obliterated by Elysian fire. You’ve levelled up. The world is in a higher resolution yet somehow has softer edges. Is this the New Power Generation? Or Satori? Uplifting anthems are for n00bz. Where we’re going we don’t need major thirds.