Looking back over Prince’s career, you have to wonder what, exactly, the guy’s problem was. Remember in the mid-90’s when we proclaimed himself a “slave” to the record company? Well, if you look back earlier, it’s pretty clear the record company didn’t give a shit what he put out, as long as it was funky. It’s hard to imagine more artistic freedom than Prince enjoys on Dirty Mind.
He uses that freedom to great effect musically: Prince tapped into some sort of Platonic ideal of a funk-rock fusion, and the musicianship (mostly all by Prince) and melodies are downright irresistible. I can just imagine some record company executive saying, “No, you can’t stick a Greg Kihn guitar line over slap bass” on “When You Were Mine”, or “That Moog synthesizer will simply not be a funky solo” on “Head”. He’d be wrong, of course. But I doubt that anyone could resist “Partyup”, featuring an insanely catchy chant for the chorus, or the slinky “Got a Broken Heart Again.” The rest, while not so memorable, are worthy tracks, and the whole album is propelled by musical invention and energy to delightful heights.
On the other hand, a record executive might have provided some useful restraint on the lyrics. Prince’s unalloyed lyrical vision is often misguided, occasionally disturbing and in one place, repulsive. I like sex, I think it’s fun, and I think songs about sex are fun, too. But Prince doesn’t just like sex, he likes trying to shock you by singing about sex. The odd thing is, a lot of his lyrics sound like he hasn’t had much sex (very odd, considering he was a rock star). They’re horny schoolboy odes about meeting women on the street who can’t resist him. Along the way he puts down homosexuals, undermines another man’s marriage, and even proclaims “incest is everything it’s said to be” (what, a criminally degrading and permanently scarring abuse of the most sacred bond between two people?) It’s more embarrassing in its sophomorism than shocking.
If you don’t mind the lyrics, Dirty Mind is a hell of an album, and it marks the start of the most prodigious period in an amazing career. All because of the freedom Prince enjoyed way back when.
Around the World in a Day
Well, you can always trust Prince to defy record industry conventions. In this case, it’s the idea of front-loading the good songs on side one of an album, and letting the weaker numbers flesh out side two. Not our Prince: side one of Around the World in a Day is a whole string of stinkers, while side two is teeming with catchy tunes and inspired instrumental performances.
The album kicks off with “Around the World in a Day” and “Paisley Park”, about which the best that can be said is that the atmospheric production doesn’t completely smother the lame hooks. “Condition of the Heart” shows that while Prince’s falsetto is fun for interjections, it’s not enough to carry seven minutes of listless piano vamping, and “Tambourine” seems to have lost its melody on the way to the studio.
In the middle of this dreck is one of the gem’s of Prince’s career: “Raspberry Beret.” With a shimmering string arrangement, irresistible sing-along chorus and intense visual imagery in the lyrics, it’s one of the great hits of the ‘80’s. Even this song, though, suffers from one of the major faults of this album: lazy drum programming. After the innovative drum lines on 1999, it’s really shocking to hear how little effort Prince puts into the beats on this album; you’ll hear more interesting rhythms on a Belinda Carlisle album.
Prince turns things around for side two, with three killer songs and one intriguingly twisted epic. “America” is essentially a funk jam on “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, and it’s amazing how cool that song sounds funked up. The faded ending implies a longer jam. “Pop Life” is another of Prince’s classic cuts, combining slap bass, astringent strings, and a lyric simultaneously affirming and accusatory (best line: “Is the mailman jerking you ’round? Did he put your million dollar check in someone else’s box?”). I don’t know why it isn’t more popular in 80’s revival scenes. “The Ladder” has a gorgeous gospel vamp (written by Prince’s dad) and massed harmonies that evoke classic spirituals, even if the lyrics seem a bit iffy in their grasp of soteriology. To cap off a terrific album side, Prince delivers “Temptation”, a grinding shuffle with some Hendrix-inspired guitar and one of his most deliciously leering vocals. Unfortunately, about halfway through it breaks down into a heavy-breathing conversation between Prince and God, and unless you’re an aficionado of The 700 Club, such conversations are usually best left private.
There are lots of albums where one side is terrific and the other fillerific but it’s usually side one that’s the winner. At least Prince has the perverse sense to put the good stuff on the back end, so it’s a relief rather than a letdown to flip over the record.
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