49: Way Back Home / Affirmation I, II & III

Art Official Age (2014)
I humbly offer you my reading of the Art Official Age album. In its opening track, Mr Nelson’s class are told in Danish that they “have to do something that will change [their] life forever: open this cage.” He wants them to find the knowledge that will free them from the imprisoning illusion of the phenomenal world. The keys to unlock Maya. Morpheus’s red pill. Bill Hick’s rollercoaster. This threatens the power structures invested in the illusion and we hear the teacher being waterboarded, interrogated and finally losing consciousness as track 1 ends HAL 9000 style. Cut to 45 years in the future and Mr Nelson is woken up in a “brand new age” by an agent who says she’s there to help him but the way her voice glitches on that phrase makes you wonder. A breakdown follows as he acclimatises to this “place that doesn’t require time”. He learns about the new standard of funk and re-experiences old feelings of desire, love and heartbreak which he sloughs off like a snake shedding its skin. Solve et coagula. He’s now ready to receive the affirmation that “there are no such words as me or mine”. This leads to the epiphany of Way Back Home and the realisation all he ever really wanted was to return to the all embracing oneness of the universe. Away from ego and concept of self. He tried doing this in the past with apocalyptic funk’n’roll partying and sex, but this obliteration of self was only momentary. A brief respite from the alienation he was feeling. He now sees that time isn’t linear and understands he is “everything and anything [he] can think of”. The agent, now speaking telepathically, leaves him with the words “there really is only one destination and that is you, all of it is you”. The border separating himself and the cosmos dissolves. He has found his Way Back Home and the song reappears to see us out. And if you have the album on loop, the next words you’ll hear are Mr Nelson welcoming you home and telling you “you’ve come a long way”. Time is circular. Rinse. Repeat.

81: Time

Art Official Age (2014)
Time’s intro may be all touch-tone beeps, but the beat sounds programmed on an old rotary phone. A lumbering, mechanical rhythm that pauses while the dial resets after each digit. It’s just one of the contradictions that make us feel we’re at the point in the album’s story where the concept of time breaks down and Mr Nelson experiences every moment at once. Previous Prince songs bubble up (I count twelve references, including three obvious ones from this album) and everything that ever was, is, and will be, flood the senses as the doors of perception explode open. You thought that was a funky bass solo you heard? It’s the sound of spacetime being rent asunder. Of course these metaphysical trappings come parcelled up with the album. On any other release, this song would just be a dirty phone call between a lonely Prince in his hotel room and Andy Allo, the “animal half his age”. Here it’s Prince passing on the secrets of time learnt from The Greatest Romance Ever Sold and Chelsea Rodgers.

86: Breakdown

Art Official Age (2014)
Prince’s screams aren’t the armour-piercing pitch they once were, but he doesn’t shy away from unleashing them in this lasers-and-strings-filled Empty Room reboot. Not since The Beautiful Ones have we seen anything as brutal and beautifully cathartic. Brutalful. Repentant for his past behaviour Mr Nelson beats himself up, allowing everything to land on the one like a punch to the gut. It wasn’t the first song recorded for Art Official Age but I’ll bet it’s the one the album concept and sound grew around. I’ll explain my reading of the album when we get to Way Back Home but I believe Breakdown is the protagonist hitting rock bottom – a necessary low point so something new can be born within him. His screams are a chrysalis, protecting his body as it breaks down and crystallises into a new form. The birth of a new ego-less being. Just your standard third-track ballad then.

120: Breakfast Can Wait

The Breakfast Experience (2013) / Art Official Age (2014)
Chapelle’s Show sketch aired in 2004 which had Charlie Murphy recounting the true story of how Prince thrashed him and his brother Eddie in a game of basketball while wearing heels. The punchline was they were served pancakes afterwards. Prince took Chappelle’s impression of this scene and used it as the cover artwork for the release of Breakfast Can Wait nine years later – a retort that Chappelle called a judo move. A checkmate. And the song is just as mischievous as its cover. A sultry R&B jam that breaks out into chipmunk vocals for no reason other than teh lulz? It should sound irritating but it’s as funky as hell, like Camille on helium. Camillium. A year later Prince referenced the Chappelle sketch again when he served the same breakfast to Zooey Deschanel in a post-Super Bowl episode of New Girl. Having the greatest Super Bowl half-time show in history under your belt and then returning to serve pancakes afterwards. Now that’s checkmate.

171: Clouds

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; 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.

186: U Know

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 are no such words as me or mine. Although Mila J may tell you he always believed that.

194: June

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.

228: This Could B(e) Us

Art Official Age (2014) / HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
Prince often retweeted memes he featured in, but the viral “THIS COULD BE US BUT YOU PLAYIN” jpeg of himself and Apollonia inspired an album track. Twice. Out of the two versions of This Could Be Us, the remix is punchier and puts some meat on the space-ballad’s delicate bones. The original starts off with a Close Encounters melody, twinkles like a malfunctioning holodeck and slows to a close HAL-style. But HITnRUN’s revisit takes the sci-fi effects and ramps it up into warp-drive. The second half is now basically an instrumental and all the better for it, although the song’s lyrics aren’t as corny as they first sound. “You want me like a new pair of shoes” and “you’re the cage to my dove” may seem like clumsy and misguided pick-up lines, but in the context of Art Official Age’s narrative, Mr Nelson has yet to receive his first affirmation on how to interact with the opposite sex. The recently awoken time-traveller is still concerned with words like “me” and “mine” and is currently reliving past relationships where he wants to possess and be shown off as a possession. It’s this restricting mindset that’s caging his dove of inner peace. Or hey, Prince may have just grasped for a word rhyming with ‘love’ without thinking too hard about it but where’s the magic in believing that?

245: Funknroll

Plectrumelectrum (2014) / Art Official Age (2014)
The song that comes in two distinct flavours: Aerosmith-lite and hyphy. I care nothing for the Plectrumelectrum former, and everything (despite its unpopularity) for the Art Official Age latter. Prince and (producer) Joshua dose up on Swizz Beatz, steal his radar pings and throw in guitar stabs for fun. It’s a recipe that could easily go wrong but to these ears they totally kill it. And that’s before we hear the final minute! If, like Cher, I could turn back time I’d jump to before I heard this remix, because to relive the unexpected switch-up for the first time again would be a thing of joy. After three minutes of them getting hyphy with it, the synths arrive, exploding the track into an epic EDM stadium-filler; a Deadmaus career condensed into a 60-second showreel. In the context of the album, it’s slightly jarring (the sudden gearshift to the amazing but simmering-boil of Time afterwards is abrupt) but in isolation, it’s a hip-height firecracker. This version of Funknroll is a powerful reminder of Prince’s relevancy while his contemporaries languish in their dotage. He promises to “get it turned up, get it out of control” and damn right he delivers. You probably disagree, but then again you probably like your ice cream vanilla and your pizzas margarita. Like the man himself says: “get into the rhythm, it’s good for your soul”.

386: What it Feels Like

Art Official Age (2014)
Putting aside the lyrics for a moment, this duet with Andy Allo perfectly embodies the nervous feeling of going back to somebody’s house for the first time while the game of seduction is playing out. The bassline chokes like a knotting in the throat and the staccato beat evokes the heightened self awareness that occurs as two tentative players swap loaded, strategic movements amid a white-out of adrenaline-pumped, screaming nuances. When you pay attention to the lyrics it’s clear that the song’s a long-distance conversation between the duettists, but when you would sell the moon to know exactly what’s going on in the other person’s head, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the same room or not – the chasmic, cosmic separation becomes wider than any time-zone divide. I could gush for days on the way this song makes me feel but I agree with the Russian writer Turgenev who once commented that there are feelings that can only be expressed via music, and What it Feels Like generates that churning mix of promise and anxiety better than any impoverished words could.

497: Art Official Cage

Art Official Age (2014)
In 2014 two new Prince albums were simultaneously released, heavily enshrouded with the usual media spiel as a return to form. You’ve been burnt before but the press is all “fo’ realz this time” so you have hope in your careworn heart. A hope that diminishes during the artless rock of Plectrumelectrum and sinks completely when this Art Official Age opener begins. A new plateaux has been reached. Prince has gone full Eurovision. You should never go full Eurovision. And if you switched the album off at that point and unflinchingly walked away, not looking back at the exploding fireball of Prince’s career you would have missed his most creative, interesting and damn right listenable album since 1995’s The Gold Experience. What follows track one is such refined, purple genius that repeated exposure worms this eurodance pastiche into your soul. It’s ridiculously bombastic. I stand corrected – you should never go half-measures Eurovision. Crowd noise. Electronic hand claps. Ricardo Da Force style rap. The whole shebang. And just when you think he has emptied the entire Eurovision toy box, the pyrotechnic operatics kick in, followed by 16 bars of dubstep, Egyptian guitar and a waterboarding sketch??? The song buckles under the weight and shuts down like HAL 9000 singing Daisy Daisy. Istanbul plunges into darkness as the Israeli lightshow trips the city’s power. Douze points!