‘Welcome home, class. You’ve come a long way’
With these words, 54-year-old Prince greets his fans on the opening song off of his new solo album, Art Official Age, which was released last week.
It’s a fitting acknowledgement of the dedication of his fan base, who over the past 21 years of Prince’s 36-year career have suffered through the dwindling quality of his recordings.
In 1993, in dispute with his label, Warner Brothers, the prolific Prince (14 albums in 15 years) changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and began releasing rejigged albums of material from his vault of unreleased recordings to meet his contractual obligations with the label.
In his book Prince, fan and critic Matt Thorne states that the press release announcing the name change caused such media confusion that Prince was still clarifying it two years later.
“In a statement on his website at the time, The Dawn, Prince explained that he felt his name had become commoditised by Warner Brothers, and that the only solution was to adopt as a moniker a symbol that could not be pronounced,” writes Thorne. “Prince’s decision to change his name came two months after he faxed a press release to the media saying he was retiring from studio recording … Earlier that same day, he had a meeting with Warner Brothers in which he told them he wouldn’t be delivering any more studio albums, instead planning to fulfil his deal with old songs from his vault.”
The relationship was so acrimonious that Prince took to writing the word “slave” on his head in public, and especially during meetings with his label. He released five albums between 1994 and 1996 to fulfil his contract with Warner Brothers.
“If Prince had allowed Warner Brothers to go through the vault and select songs themselves rather than merely take what they were given, they could have compiled the best Prince release to date,” argues Thorne.
The author details how many of the albums released during the period Prince was trying to free himself from Warner Brothers were created and sequenced from a place of anger and resentment, and Thorne argues this reflects in many of the decisions the artist made at the time.
“Some (including many at Warner Brothers) believed Prince concluded his record deal with albums compiled out of spite,” writes Thorne. “Prince would conclude his deal with Warner Brothers (compilations aside) with two albums he dismissed on the sleeve notes as recorded ‘4 private use only’, seemingly wanting to make the purchasers feel guilty for buying them.”
Thorne goes as far as describing the first of these two albums, Chaos and Disorder, as a “punk-rock equivalent to Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear” a break-up record “offered to a record company instead of a single woman”.
The response from fans and critics alike was nonplussed.
Sure, there were great moments along the way, but no grand defining statements from Prince, no more masterpieces to add to those from the first half of his career.
A further three albums followed after Warner Brothers contract, between 1996 and 2000, at which point the unpronounceable symbol began referring to himself as Prince again, and a further 11 albums followed between 2000 and 2010.
Most of these were patchy at best, with 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121 probably receiving the most acclaim. The last time Prince had a top 10 hit was 1994’s The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. That was a long time ago; I was still in high school.
When I was a teenager I got hooked on early-90s Prince. It was pop songs like Cream, 7 and My Name Is Prince, and funk gems like Sexy MF, that hooked my adolescent ears and sent me hurtling back into his catalogue to albums like Purple Rain, Dirty Mind and Sign o’ the Times.
Ever since then I have been another frustrated Prince fan, waiting for the album that would reward that dedication, make it all worthwhile.
To say Prince fans have “come a long way” is an understatement. It’s been a 21-year odyssey.
What is it that inspires such loyalty from the Prince fan base? What is it that keeps these eager fans hoping for a new album every bit the equal to classics like Purple Rain, Sign o’ the Times and Parade?
Thorne makes the argument in his book that understanding Prince’s genius can not be done by looking at his album releases.
“His work onstage and at after-shows is as vital a part of his art as anything manufactured in a recording studio,” argues Thorne.
Thorne’s position is that no Prince song is truly throwaway to the artist, no matter how the audience receives it, and that to gain a complete understanding of Prince’s genius, it’s worth tracking down even the artist’s most obscure or least valued records.
Thorne doesn’t just make this argument in his book, the argument is his book, which at times makes for daunting reading.
No matter how big a Prince fan you count yourself to be, no matter how many obscure songs you have tracked down, no matter how many concerts you have been to over the years and how many bootlegs recordings you have tucked away in your collection, chances are that Thorne has pipped you to the post of being the number one Prince fan.
Thorne’s attention to detail is the thing that makes his book so damn interesting and so damn infuriating at the same time.
It’s the kind of book you want to read, and then spend a year tracking down every song, video and bootleg mentioned to watch and listen to, and then pick up the book and read it again. That’s mostly because Thorne dissects Prince’s work with a scalpel, drawing on thematic parallels between songs that were recorded often decades apart.
It’s the kind of intertextual reading that Prince’s body of work deserves, and one that only the most hardcore fan could deliver. It’s obsessive to a fault, but hey, this is the kind of fanaticism Prince inspires.
In 2014, Prince fans are out there desperately hoping Art Official Age is a return to form – a classic Prince album to restore their faith all over again.
So what can you expect?
Well, before we get there I need to point out that Art Official Age is not the only new album from Prince; on September 30, Prince dropped not one but two new records.
The second is titled PlectrumElectrum, and is credited to Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL, a new all-female band he has recently been touring with.
The band – made up of drummer Hannah Ford, guitarist Donna Grantis and bassist and former New Power Generation member Ida Nielsen – came together to play with Prince in late 2012.
“The way it all started, we didn’t know we were going to be a band; we didn’t even have a name,” Nielsen recently told the Guardian. “We just went to Paisley Park and were jamming with Prince, and he was teaching us all these new songs.”
”Then all of a sudden we’re doing the Jimmy Fallon show and he’s introducing us as 3RDEYEGIRL,” she said. “And we’re like: ‘Oh, okay, that’s our name, then.’”
The name probably has its roots in an unreleased song called 3RDEYE, a few decades old, which Thorne describes as “a repetition of a theme Prince has revisited obsessively – “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, combined with some wooly mysticism”.
According to Nielsen, the album was recorded live, with all the musicians playing together in the same room.
“We thought we were learning new material to play live. But all of a sudden he said: ‘Let’s make a sequence,’” she told the Guardian.
“We had to play our parts so quickly that our musical instinct took over – the first sound or feel we thought might fit is what you’ll hear on the record,” said Grantis.
This makes sense when listening to Plectrum Electrum – it’s a bolshie, straight-ahead funk-rock record.
It’s clear Prince hasn’t sounded this rock in a while, and maybe that’s why there is something unsatisfying about the record.
Guitar histrionics dominate. like on opener WOW and AINTTURNINROUND, but it feels like something is missing.
He makes this hard blues-rock onslaught seem pedestrian; some of the songs come off sounding downright anaemic despite their crunchy guitar swagger.
And when stacked up against Art Official Age, which is natural as both albums were released on the same day, it is always going to come off second.
So let’s get on to the better of the two new albums.
Art Official Age is a much more successful record, possibly the best thing Prince has released in almost two decades.
On it he engages with contemporary pop music forms like R&B, hip-hop and EDM in a way he hasn’t in a long time.
Perhaps this has something to do with 24-year-old Joshua Welton, the husband of 3RDEYEGIRL’s drummer Hanna Ford Welton, who shares coproduction credits with Prince on the album.
It has been reported that there are even some tracks on Art Official Age where Prince didn’t even play an instrument, trusting in Welton to deliver.
On the whole, Art Official Age is a smooth and playful album, with R&B crooning and electro-funk jams dominating.
Clouds is one such jam, and it’s just downright addictive. It sees Prince introducing the loose narrative thread of the album, which involves him being been placed into suspended animation and woken up 45 years in the future.
Opener Art Official Cage combines Prince’s funk sound with nods to EDM, while U Know sounds like it could have been written for any number of R&B or hip-hop albums, a nod to younger contemporaries like Frank Ocean, The Roots, Odd Future, Janelle Monáe and Kendrick Lamar.
Then there is FUNKNROLL, a track that features on both Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum, but in different forms.
On PlectrumElectrum it’s a rocking funk number; on Art Official Age it’s a banging electro track that sounds like it was built for the dance floor, especially after the three-minute mark when it explodes into an EDM-inspired ending.
Other highlights include the achingly beautiful ballads Breakdown and This Could Be Us, and the electro-funk of the Gold Standard.
But the standout track, without a doubt, is the magnificent Breakfast Can Wait, a song so good it compares with the best of Prince’s recorded output.
It’s a smooth funk groove that is grounded in a state of domestic bliss, and in it Prince brings his sexy persona back to the fore.
As his fans well know, when the Purple One gets his sex on, it’s game over for the competition.
As famed critic Robert Christgau from Village Voice once wrote in his review of Dirty Mind, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home”.
Writing about Breakfast Can Wait, Thorne says the song “simultaneously reaches back deep into the 1980s for inspiration and features Prince doing something he has hasn’t done before”.
“It starts out like a standard example of morning-after lover man R&B, with Prince telling a partner how much he prefers making love to her than having breakfast (while simultaneously seeming more lascivious in the way he describes his hot cakes and coffee than love-making),” writes Thorne. “Then just after. he introduces a touch of menace into the imploring – he pitch-shifts his vocals … until he sounds like sex-crazed smurf.”
Thorne says the high-pitched voice acts to destroy everything Prince set up in the first three verses, referring to himself as Prince and mocking the lover man in the first half of the song.
Whatever Prince’s intentions with the song were, it’s a moment of pure Prince genius.
But the critics appear divided about Art Official Age, with some calling it a return to form and others calling it patchy.
In his review of Art Official Age for the Guardian, music critic Alexis Petridis argues that Prince is not lacking in ideas, but rather has “an inability, or unwillingness, to marshal his diverse talents and influences as strictly as he once did”.
“Prince’s apologists might point out that there’s a genuinely great album’s worth of material here, and they’d have a point: the best bits are worth sitting through the less fantastic bits for,” writes Petridis. “It’s hard not to think there was a time when Prince himself would have recognised that and scrupulously cut away the excess.”
Petridis argues that for some reason Prince now seems to require his fans to do that themselves. “It’s infuriating, but the fact that it’s still worth doing at least tells you something about how good the highlights are.”
And in that final line, Petridis nails the quintessential truth about Prince.
To turn the symbol of a pop generation’s lyrics against him, “nothing compares to you”.