Prince’s Princely MomentsPosted: December 13, 2011
Max Broady lists his favourite Prince albums, offering you a beginner’s guide to the purple one’s purple patch.
Although it doesn’t seem to attract as much kudos as some of his records, 1999 was the most overblown expression of all Prince’s eccentricities, and is accordingly my favourite Prince album. He frontloads the album with the big singles (‘1999’, ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘Delirious’ – all exceptional), but it’s only once he’s got these out of the way that we get to the heart of the album and things get deliciously odd. He follows the three hits with three epic songs, each over seven minutes long, that are individually astonishing and collectively ridiculous. ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married’ interrupts its pulsing kraut-ish groove only for Prince to deliver a foul-mouthed monologue and then closes with a semi-rap telling us how he loves a) God, and b) partying, in that order; ‘D.M.S.R’ is a party jam that sounds like the music from Sonic the Hedgehog; and strangest of all is the ten-minute ‘Automatic’, a litany of sexual boasts that descends into a maelstrom of multi-tracked moaning women whilst Prince shreds away on his guitar. What else? If you still need convincing there’s ‘Free’, a cloyingly earnest ballad about, er, how lucky we are to be free; and ‘Lady Cab Driver’, a great falsetto funk number with a raunchy rant about sex, tourists and consumerism. I guess if you don’t love Prince this all might be a bit much; 1999 is by far his most over-the-top album. But you’ve got to admire such unbridled ambition and such wilful disregard for coherence, convention or even the average listener’s attention span, especially by such a popular artist. If you can embrace the oddity 1999 is certainly worth it.
Sign o’ the Times
It might seem daunting – especially given Prince’s fondness for excess – but for a double album it’s actually pretty tight. And it was originally slated to be a triple album called Crystal Ball until his record label finally learned to say ‘no’. He was so prolific over this period that he had a number of projects on the go that never saw the light of day, including an album of songs by his female alter-ego Camille (pre-empting Kevin Barnes by over 20 years). Sign o’ the Times was a synthesis of these various projects. It lacks the poppy polish of Purple Rain, but it feels more intimate and personal than just about anything else he’s done. There aren’t many famous songs, but it’s a really solid and varied collection all pulled off with consummate ease. It works a bit like a ‘best of’, showcasing the all-encompassing range of his talents. The title track is probably his most successful ‘message’ song; ‘Play in the Sunshine’ is a breezy ready-for-the-stage pop romp; ‘Housequake’ a James Brown-esque one-chord jam… and that’s just the first three songs – I could go on. Props in particular must go to ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ which invents the sound of TLC, and the ethereal ‘If I was your Girlfriend’, which was in fact covered by TLC (and was the only vestige of the Camille project on the album). You’re also treated to two of his most enjoyable pop songs: ‘Strange Relationship’ and ‘I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man’. It took a bit of time to grow on me, but it’s an incredible example of his prowess.
Parade: Music from the Motion Picture ‘Under the Cherry Moon’
Not his most feted album, and lacks that certain something which would propel it to being truly great, but it’s solid all the way through and benefits from a nice, warm production (following the ghostly Around the World In a Day). It doesn’t start that strongly but has a great run of songs at the end, from ‘Kiss’ (deny its brilliance at your peril) to ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’, which is hands-down my favourite Prince ballad. Plus it has ‘Mountains’, a lovely gospel-ish pop banger, and ‘Girls and Boys’, which is silly bilingual fun. For good measure it also has ‘Venus de Milo’, a slightly pointless but inoffensive instrumental, and ‘Do You Lie?’, which I thought was awful on first listen but is actually really quite passable. NB: apparently the film is rubbish. I’d rate this record only very slightly above…
This is a lean batch of songs clocking in at less than half an hour, which is in marked contrast to the excess of some of his later records. It’s way too economical to be home to any of the weirdness that arrived with his next record, Controversy. Even its song titles are literal and blunt (‘Sister’, ‘Head’). The playing is slick, tight and irresistibly funky. It features the surprisingly touching ‘When You Were Mine’ and ‘Gotta Broken Heart Again’, and the peerless dancefloor-fillers ‘Uptown’ and ‘Party Up’. But I think special mention has to go to ‘Sister’, a sub-two-minute rocker extolling the virtues of incest, and ‘Head’, where the outré subject matter is echoed perfectly by the slobbering synths. Not a weak song and not a second wasted.
This one’s a bit over-rated, I think, but then I’m not a massive fan of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ or ‘I would Die 4 U’, or even ‘Purple Rain’ for that matter. And when there’s only 9 songs on the whole album that leaves… what? an okay ballad (‘The Beautiful Ones’), a bit of filler (‘Baby I’m A Star’)… oh, and his best ever song, ‘When Doves Cry’, in a nicely extended version. From the cocky-as-hell guitar intro to the simple three-note riff (which always reminds me of the melody to “three blind mice, see how they run…”), the notoriously bass-less mega-hit shouldn’t work on paper but is Prince’s crowning achievement. To give Purple Rain its dues you also get the fantastic ‘Take Me With You’, ‘Darling Nikki’, which I’ve always had a soft spot for, and ‘Computer Blue’, which is not much of a tune and is just about the most ‘80s-sounding song ever recorded, but it does have some cool guitar and the charming spoken intro (“Wendy?” “Yes, Lisa?” “Is the water warm enough?” “Yes, Lisa”).
After the straight-ahead Dirty Mind, Controversy took a step into the off-the-wall territory that would go overboard on 1999. Crucially, it introduced an artistic mainstay of Prince’s peak period: the spoken word section (a motif also popular with the Wednesday Club). The title track delivers perhaps the first genuine WTF moment of his career. After five minutes of squelchy synth funk the music dies down and Prince slowly intones in a deep, distorted voice the Lord’s Prayer. In full. Seriously. And, if that wasn’t enough, the song kicks back in and he begins to chant: “People call me rude, I wish we all were nude, I wish there were no black or white, I wish there were no rules”. The next song, ‘Sexuality’, is perhaps even more unfathomable. After the second chorus of “sexuality, let your body be free” you think you’ve got the song pinned down. But then Prince launches into a lengthy and completely incongruous rant against tourists (again! What’s his problem with tourists? They’re “a bunch of double drags who teach their kids that love is bad”, apparently) and television (which teaches children “to cuss, fight and breed”). Um, thanks Prince. Mercifully we’re back on familiar ground with the next song, ‘Do Me Baby’ – “ooh, give it to me”, he croons soulfully. Controversy is a slightly awkward transitional album, but is unfairly maligned and has some unmitigated triumphs – particularly ‘Private Joy’, typical perfect pop, and ‘Jack U Off’, which is pretty much the same as ‘Delirious’ from 1999.
Around The World In A Day
This is supposed to be his psychedelic album, but it just sounds hollow and really cold (if anything, I’d say Parade is his psychedelic album). Also, the songs aren’t really up to standard, though ‘Paisley Park’ and ‘Pop Life’ are pretty good. ‘Condition of the Heart’ is a quite nice ballad, I suppose, though it does go on a bit. But then it does have ‘Raspberry Beret’, which is probably my second favourite Prince song and about the most infectiously enjoyable song one can imagine. But this towers above the rest of the album, and is outweighed by the hugely overwrought plodder ‘The Ladder’. I tried really hard to like this one but it doesn’t quite work.
You’re thinking that’s probably as much as you need, but if you’re interested enough to have read this far then you DEFINITELY also need to get down with the B-Sides album – it’s actually the 3rd CD of a 3-CD compilation album he did called simply Hits (a fair enough title). If I could take just one Prince disc to my desert island it’d be this. It’s amazing to think that he could relegate material this strong to the flipside: ‘Erotic City’, ‘She’s Always In My Hair’, ‘17 Days’ – probably all 3 would be in my top 10 Prince songs – and the latter is the B-Side to ‘When Doves Cry’, making it one of the strongest A/B singles ever. And there’s a song called ‘Horny Toad’ – what’s not to love?
Max, December 11