Whether or not he’ll ever deliver the kind of masterpiece his most ardent fans still believe him capable of (myself included), a new Prince album is always cause for excitement and celebration. Die-hards will argue endlessly over which specific album marked the turning point at which his albums transitioned from carefully-crafted statements to slapdash compilations of scraps (and occasionally brilliant songs) he happened to have lying around. As I see it, the most obvious change occurred in 1996 with the release of Emancipation. Prince marked the end to a bitter feud to free himself from his Warner Bros. contract by issuing a three-disc, three-hour behemoth. But it was loaded with subpar tracks and dominated by sterile, auto-pilot production.
Since then, there hasn’t been anything close to the idiosyncratic genius of Parade or Lovesexy (to name but two), not even a Gold Experience for that matter. With few exceptions, his albums all started to sound the same—half-baked grab-bags, rather than deliberately-constructed explorations of new sonic and lyrical directions. His very best post-Warner albums have been sometimes practically hidden (see the primarily acoustic The Truth, buried as disc four of the underwhelming 1998 outtakes/remix collection Crystal Ball, or the piano-based One Nite Alone, offered only to NPG Music Club members as an add-on to the 2004 One Nite Alone… Live! box set). And now hell has apparently frozen over, because he’s rekindled his professional relationship with Warner Bros. after all these years. Two more albums have been added to the heap.
Art Official Age, the stronger of the pair, is nonetheless burdened by the inclusion of an unwieldy sci-fi concept. There’s a British-accented lady delivering short affirmations about how “Mr. Nelson” (as in Prince Rogers Nelson) has been languishing in suspended animation for 45 years and is now undergoing a difficult thawing-out period. It brings to mind the “interactive” gimmickry that now dates The Gold Experience (1995) or the Kirstie Alley nonsense that took up space on O(+> (1992; aka the “Love Symbol” album). If you can ignore that, however, there are some strong moments. “Breakdown” and “Way Back Home” are ballads boosted by powerful vocals and introspective lyrics. “The Gold Standard” is the album’s most irresistible funk groove. Available last year as a single, “Breakfast Can Wait” works far better as an album track than as a standalone.
In an extremely rare collaborative case, Prince credits Joshua Welton with co-production. Art Official Age seems to be attempting to make a case that Prince is every bit as current as his contemporaries, but what’s the point? The young kids view Prince as a relic and aren’t going to buy this. Older fans may find themselves wishing that Prince and Welton had dropped the au courant sound effects in favor of an older school sound. But overall, they’ve crafted an album that hangs together pretty well and deserves to rank considerably higher than releases from the slump Prince found himself in about a decade ago with the dreadfully uninspired Musicology (2004) and 3121 (2006).
If it’s old school you seek, PLECTRUMELECTRUM may just be your ticket. Co-credited to Prince’s all-girl backing group 3rdEyeGirl, the album was recorded in analog and purports to be a live-in-the-studio rock record. There are a few major problems, however, starting with the fact that nearly half the tracks are sung by someone other than Prince. Remember when Paul McCartney decided to get really democratic and let everyone in Wings take a turn at the mic on At the Speed of Sound? The effect is similar: one of pop music’s most versatile, expressive, and distinct voices taking a backseat in favor of bland, forgettable, generic voices. PLECTRUM is nowhere near as good as, say, Chaos and Disorder (the 1995 guitar jam-oriented album that marked what was then expected to be a permanent split with Warner). It also doesn’t help that the ladies themselves—Donna Grantis (guitar), Hannah Ford Welton (drums), and Ida Nielsen (bass)—simply don’t rock as intensely or funk out as wildly as the mid-‘90s NPG.
Still, album opener “Wow” is a crunchy treat that recalls the best moments on the highly underrated 2009 Lotusflower (heretofore Prince’s most recent U.S. album release; I’m thinking specifically of tracks like “Boom”). The instrumental title track cribs heavily from Led Zeppelin (“Moby Dick” anyone?), but the ’90-era alt rock of “FIXURLIFEUP” brings things back into focus. “FUNKNROLL” also appears on Art Official, but it’s this version that stuns (that heavy opening riff, which recurs periodically, honestly sounds like something Lou Reed would’ve been proud to have on one of his later albums). “ANOTHERLOVE” is apparently a cover (officially it’s labeled as an “adaptation” of someone else’s song) but it boasts Prince most impassioned vocal on either record.
Lyrically, much of PLECTRUM seems tossed off. The crack about “a bunch of blind people playing tic-tac-toe” is in very poor taste (from the refrain of “TICTACTOE”). The opening line from “MARZ,” (“I lost my job at Mickey D’s”) is pure cheese (and surprisingly not the first McDonald’s reference in a Prince song, see “Silicon” from The Slaughterhouse). The girl rappers on “BOYTROUBLE” leave little impression, but “WHITECAPS” could’ve been a real highlight had Prince not handed over the lead vocal to one of the 3rdEyeGirls.
While undoubtedly in the “mixed bag” category of most of Prince’s albums of the last 18 years or so, at least both Art Official Age and PLECTRUMELECTRUM sound relatively cohesive.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00N0YIQFE,B00N0YJVGW]