In 1989, Prince released his soundtrack to Tim Burton's blockbuster movie Batman. Music critics generally viewed the album as a disappointment. His fan base largely dismissed it as merely marking time. Nearly twenty years later, it is high time for reappraisal. The past decade-plus of mostly subpar Prince albums has benefited Batman. If the same album was released now, I daresay it would be hailed as a return to form.
I was among the staunchest critics upon initial release of Batman, primarily because of my die-hard admiration of Prince. My expectations were extraordinarily high. In fact, I was far more excited for the album than the movie that inspired it. But the music seemed distinctly underwhelming compared to then-recent Prince releases such as Lovesexy and Sign O' the Times. The lingering impression was that Prince had taken a big step backward after his creative innovations throughout the 1980s.
Commercially, it was a different story entirely. Buoyed by the phenomenal success of the movie, Batman became Prince's first multi-platinum chart-topper in years. Considerable debate raged over whether it was even appropriate to have Prince contribute pop songs to Burton's dark vision of Gotham City. In retrospect, such concerns seem unfounded as very few songs from the album are featured prominently in the film. Rather than a traditional soundtrack, Batman is a Prince album; a party album, featuring mostly dance music laced with sound bites of dialogue from the movie. Primarily recorded by Prince alone in a matter of weeks (though some songs already existed in various states of completion), the production seemed hasty. This obviously wasn't the meticulously crafted product that Prince's followers had come to expect.
Fast forward to 2008, Batman sounds practically like a forgotten classic when compared to the likes of 2006's 3121 or 2004's Musicology. These days Prince seems to have largely lost his ability to compose tight, coherent songs with strong hooks. Back in 1989, he was coming off what is remembered as his peak period. Consider Batman's opening track: the minimalist, spooky-sounding "The Future" – lead vocal credited to Batman (each song was assigned to a different character). The string samples manage to evoke Danny Elfman's iconic score, while the Sounds of Blackness Choir samples contribute to the uneasy atmosphere. Lyrically the song paints a bleak view of a dangerous present with an uncertain future. Reminiscent of his earlier "Dance On" (from 1988's Lovesexy) in chronicling the ills of modern society, Prince sings of drugs and street gangs. Sinewy and sparse, "The Future" rises to a level it's author rarely reaches any longer.
The same can be said for "Electric Chair," which was meant to represent the Joker's point of view. As refreshingly under-produced as the opener, "Electric Chair" is a thumping dance/rock number. "If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind/Then gimme the electric chair for all my future crimes," insists the chorus. Attributing each song to one of the movie's main characters was a nice gimmick at the time, but the quirky lyrics are all Prince. Would the Joker use a music simile such as: "You whispered something/It took my mind out/Like a G flat major with an E in the bass?" No matter, this track sizzles and features some stinging guitar work.
While the aforementioned songs both feature briefly in the movie (albeit as instrumentals), the Sheena Easton duet "The Arms of Orion" does not. Odd, because this was clearly conceived as a love theme. The vocals are credited to Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne. Though it's often written off as a syrupy, sappy ballad (which it is, quite honestly), it's also a well-structured piece of melodic pop songwriting. Exactly the type of song that Prince seldom pulls off at this point in his career. Pretty, but not particularly passionate, "The Arms of Orion" was a Top 40 single. Why it was not featured in the movie – while a lesser ballad later on the album was – remains a mystery.
"Partyman" was spotlighted in the movie, when Jack Nicholson's Joker gleefully defaces priceless works of art in a gallery. A Top 20 hit single, I always viewed this song as Prince on autopilot. My feelings haven't changed; "Partyman" serves its purpose as a theme for the Joker without having any noteworthy elements. That doesn't keep it from being fun – much more fun than most of Prince's lightweight efforts of late. "If it break when it bend/You better not put it in," another memorable line.
Easily the most overlooked track, by me at least, is "Vicki Waiting." The lyrics are a bit strange, having existed before the Batman project as "Anna Waiting," concerning Prince and his then-girlfriend Anna Garcia. Retro-fitted for Batman, vocal credited to Bruce Wayne, it mixes fiction with (presumed) autobiography. "All is well in Gotham City/The sound of terror is all you hear," is one of the most direct movie-related lyrics on the album. More intriguing is the final verse, in which Prince ponders the possibility of becoming a father. "Talk of children still frightens me/Is my character enough to be/One that deserves a copy made," subject matter that is clearly a bit more personal than the rest. Musically "Vicki Waiting" is one of most dense productions on the album, a multi-textured soundscape that invites close listening.
File "Trust" in the "Partyman" category: fun but very light dance music. "Trust" is also featured in the movie, when the Joker conducts a parade to give Gotham's citizens free money. The ending chant "Who do you trust if you can't trust God?" is credited to Prince, rather than the Joker. Rightly so, as such matters were not explored in the movie. Boisterously up-tempo, what was then nothing more than a throwaway serves now as a reminder of how effortless Prince's pop confections once were.
The party begins to run out of steam at this point. No amount of revisionism can alter that perception. "Lemon Crush," while not unlistenable, is by-rote dance/funk – boring by Prince's standards. It wasn't heard in the movie and doesn't feature any references or dialogue snippets. In other words, it's filler. "Scandalous" was featured in the movie (during the end credits) and was a Top 5 hit on the R&B charts. At over six minutes, this love ballad is Prince at his most indulgent (although the CD single went further by tripling the song length). His normally smooth, supple falsetto sounds a bit strangled here. The whole thing is overwrought, almost tipping over into self-parody.
The album is jolted back to life – and not a moment too soon – by one of the strangest chart-topping singles of all time: "Batdance." While not included in the movie, "Batdance" was inescapable on radio and music television during the summer of 1989. Containing three distinctly different sections, the song weaves together a variety of elements. There are bits reprised from other songs on the album, allusions to the '60s TV show theme, many movie dialogue soundbites, as well as the most searing guitar break on the album. It all adds up to nothing short of a pop art magnum opus; kitschy yet cutting edge, tongue in cheek yet seriously funky. For those not familiar with the song, it needs to be heard to be believed. For those who regard it as a novelty song, it deserves to be revisited.
None of this is meant to suggest that Batman is a great album. It still ranks as Prince's least essential release of the '80s. In the context of so many non-essential Prince releases in the past 15 or so years, Batman's quality becomes far more apparent. The man may have been coasting, but he was still breathing rarefied air.