Monday, September 29, 2014

Maybe I'm Just Like My Mother, She's Never Satisfied

The job of a Prince Apologist is to find minutes of brilliance amidst the fifty minutes of third-rate material that make up most of his records from the last 15 years. He is someone who gives respectful, even mildly encouraging reviews to any Prince record upon its release. All Prince needs to do is put anything at all onto a slab of wax or aluminum to prove he hasn't thrown in the purple towel and that is good enough for the Prince Apologist. Other Apologists still active- Neil Young Apologists, Rolling Stones Apologists, Lou Reed Apologists and the Massapequa Chapter Of Bob Dylan Apologists & Empire Burlesque Defenders.

A Prince Realist loves Prince too, and dutifully buys all the records out of some strange sense of loyalty. The Realist has the utmost respect for the Apologist, but disagrees just about all of the time with the Apologist's assessment of the records in question. Realists have no trouble admitting how weak most of these records are. Realists are cynical. Apologists have more fun. Realists can be offputting. So can apologists.

Conversations between Realists and Apologists usually go something like this:

You know there are some really good songs on "Musicology."
No. There aren't.

Tomorrow, Prince drops two new records and for our purposes today, I am a Prince Realist.

I've been listening to Prince's two new records for two days. I went into both with nothing but a glimmer of a glimmer of hope that the man who had blown my mind for just short of two decades-1978-1997-might still have some mojo left. Sadly, I think the well has been poisoned too many times and not even an "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" blink will make "Art Official Age" or "Plectrumelectrum" anything I can sink my teeth into. I do not see myself returning to these records.

Terrible? Worst things ever? Of course not.

But that is hardly the point. I've seen some stellar reviews and I don't get it.

"Art Official Age" plays like a feeble attempt to bring back the lost Realists who have been clamoring for some classic Prince. If you want an hour's worth of second rate tunes that resemble earlier, better tunes, this is the record for you. 

The album's big opening is not unlike Prince addressing the "Dearly Beloved" in "Let's Go Crazy" and before the song finishes in a little under four minutes later, the man has already reached into his bag of tricks too many times. There is narration, house beats, funk grooves, second-rate rapping (thanks Mr. Nelson for reminding me of the saboteur of your "symbol" years, one Tony M.), and gentle nods to alter-egos Bob George and Camille. It's an exhausting way to get started, all for nothing really.

There is the slow jam of "Breakdown," which is the "Do Me, Baby" or "Slow Love" of the set. "Clouds" is an inferior rewrite of "Strange Relationship," at least musically. It is lyrically awkward even for Prince, and sabotaged with a terrible spoken word section. "The Gold Standard" is "Grind" from "The Black Album," and so on. The record is staggeringly average. It defeats its own purpose. Rather than thrilling me with reminders of all the songs I love, it pisses me off by reminding me how much better the older songs are.

"Plectrumelectrum," the album made with 3Rdeyegirl doesn't fare much better. 

"WOW," the opener, like the opener on "Art Official Age," addresses the listeners with a trite "Hello. How are you?" It borrows more than a bit from LZ's "The Ocean," but stalls soon after that intial trigger where you think "Hey, that's the riff from The Ocean!"  Prince allows 3Rdeyegirl to take the reins on a few songs, and one song kind of works. "stopthistrain" is a sweet soul groove that back in the day, wouldn't even be a C-side, let alone B-side. Today, it is one of the better tracks on the record. (Man, that bar is low.) 

Partly a collection of Led Zeppelin riffs and classic rock power chords all crying for a hook or a melody, with additional pop/soul material recalling some of Prince's past ingenues like Nona Gaye and Vanity 6, "Plectrumelectrum" desperately needed a producer.


Prince records were once more than bells and whistles and knowing there are scores of bootlegs containing far superior material adds insult to injury.

(At this juncture, many of you might be thinking about Prince's guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from that awards show. Come back. I'm almost done.) 

It's easy to call me a curmudgeon. Hell, there are 16 people in Monmouth County alone who make a living out of it. But I'd like a little credit for not breaking up with Prince a dozen bad records ago. If there was some long layoff or retirement and Prince released either one of these records as his return to the spotlight after 10 or 15 years, I might feel differently about what I'm hearing. But The Artist Currently A Shadow Of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince has been foisting these half-baked releases on us for years now. 

You go ahead and listen to these records for yourself. If you come out thinking they are great returns to form, then all the better for you. You are clearly having all the fun, though I've been known to 180 if the arguments are strong. For me right now, "Art Official Age" and "Plectrumelectrum" are two more records tainting the once brilliant career of one of the world's greatest musicians. Do the math. The percentage of good records to bad should be a thing to make you go "hmmm."

(Special thanks to Tony S.)

For a reminder of what Prince can do with just a piano, listen to "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore," a flippin' b-side for Pete's sake!


Chris Collins said...

It's hard to think of an artist I love more than Prince, but you're sadly right.

William Repsher said...

If I'm being honest with myself, Sign O the Times was the last time I can recall him working on that expected high level. Songs here and there after that, as with most major artists, but very little approaching what he could do.

Prince at his best had a great pop sense. "Purple Rain" is one of those songs of the 80's. It just seems like after the 80's he veered more towards funk/R&B and away from that pop middle ground. Any time I read a glowing review now, I can just about sense the BS between the lines.

And it might be a case of him isolating himself in that weird little world he's created in Paisley Park. I doubt people were telling him he was full of shit before that, but he was probably grounded enough to know when things weren't up to snuff ... witness the dozens of bootleg tracks floating around from the first two decades of his career. Most of that castaway stuff he never released, recorded properly in a studio, would be light years beyond anything he's done in years.

I knew a Prince fan who claimed Prince was sitting on vaults of unreleased tracks, hundreds of them, that were on the same level as his Purple Rain era material. I pointed out to him a massive bootleg I had just found on the internet that was the 10-disc equivalent of never-released tracks, saying, "Is this it?" And he insisted, no, that was some of it, but not nearly all.

And I just can't believe it, given what he's chosen to release officially over the years. Most rock stars turn into Citizen Kane after awhile.

buzzbabyjesus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
buzzbabyjesus said...

"Sign O The Times" was some sort of peak, and after that it was "Batman", and a definite cheapening of the brand and gradual decline. Who cares?
I don't need to listen to these new ones because Sal has already taken the hit for the team.
I've been enjoying the new Gary Clark Jr Live, though. Sounds a fair amount like "Free Live" in a good way. He could even get away with "All Right Now", but I'd rather hear "Mr Big" or "Ride On A Pony".

Anonymous said...

I suppose I am realistic apologist. I've found good things to like on most of the albums (except "Musicology" lol), but I haven't tried to convince anyone of it. fwiw, I think "Emancipation" is solid, made exceptional by the distinctive 2nd disc,and I enjoyed all of the Steely Dan-isms on "Planet Earth."

I've only heard "Art Official Age" so far - it reminds me of "Diamonds and Pearls" so far, a grab bag of simple songs (and rapper Tony)that I only began to like after hearing it played as house party music. It closes stronger than it starts - "Way Back Home" is a keeper and "Time" and "Affirmation II" are good in the Prince minimalist tradition. So I'll probably play it more than once to see if it grows on me.

Sal Nunziato said...


I made sure to include 1997 as the last year of Prince blowing my mind because like you, I love "Emancipation." After a bit of editing, you will be left with 2 records as good as anything in Prince's career.

cmealha said...

Consider me a realist. Totally agree with your assessment.

Anonymous said...

Curious to hear the new albums, but even more curious now to go back and give Emancipation another listen or two, since I dismissed it pretty quickly at the time.

Bruce H.

PS: Am I the only Prince fan who has serious love for the Graffiti Bridge album?

Sal Nunziato said...

Always liked "Graffiti Bridge," and now, all these bad Prince records later, it's like the "Music From Big Pink" of his career.

Eric said...

i'm neither an apologist nor realist...just been livin off the fumes of the guitar solo from "Weeps" to remind myself what was... eery parallel to what u write is kevin smith's recollection of spending a week at prince's house... basically how everything but nothing happened... but ur funnier sal... though i must say the mention of The Grind somehow triggered Grinderswitch in my chemically altered brain...i guess that's why spotify is to music what porn is to sex

Anonymous said...

it's not the only good song on there, but if "Graffiti Bridge" had only produced "Round and Round" that would be enough.

Andy said...

This post has got me listening to his mid eighties - mid nineties output and being in awe. I am intrigued by Plectrumelectrum and want to give it a try.

Related I'm wondering about two albums this year - Lenny Kravitz's new one and Keb Mo's that came out in April. Any opinions?

kevin m said...

Meanwhile, Farber's review in today's Daily News is much more favorable.

Sal Nunziato said...

I imagine everyone's review will be much more favorable.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately you are so right. It's frustrating knowing what someone is capable of but seems like he's holding back. But yes, there are glimpses of Prince's brilliance scattered in his post-Sign of the Times collections. Two tracks that come to mind are "Loose" from Come and "The One U Wanna C" from Planet Earth which I think is as good as anything he ever did. Check it out!! But again, Sal you are spot on. I have a bunch of his 45s from the early days because the b-sides were always as good as anything else he did and were a surprise. Thank you sir.

kevin pat

Anonymous said...

Also don't miss "7" and "My Name is Prince" from the (symbol) collection and "Screwdriver", "Boomstraus"and "Plectrum Electrum" (where Prince does his best Hendrix!). Anybody got some other tracks from Prince's later albums that display his greatness??? Maybe we can compile the great Prince album that's scattered among his releases??? Who's in???


Sal Nunziato said...

kevinpat, I did sorta something like that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sal. Got it. Cool.

kevinpat (ex-Copiague)

peabody nobis said...

Speaking as someone in the same demographic as you, Sal, I just don't think that we are the target market for these records. Yes, I understand that Prince is in that same demo, but he's playing to a younger crowd here.
As for the music, there are a handful of good songs, but nothing that will make you sit through the whole thing again.

@Andy-The new Lenny Kravitz is good, very good. Especially so, once you get past the disco tune at Track 2.

Todd Glaeser said...

I wonder how much of the situation is what else beside his own music "p" is listening to? In the beginning Prince was synthesizing so many varied influences. Toure wrote in his book that Bob Seger was an influence on the writing of the song Purple Rain. Now it seems like he's only drawing influence from his own music.

OldDJ said...

Spot on.

There's always a bit of production, musicianship, bass line, etc on these albums to keep hope alive...

...but it's too few and far between at this point.