The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: March, 2013

Editor’s Note: Fountain Street Church Palm Sunday Reflection

fsc-logo

Church (s)hopping is an undesirable habit to cultivate. At the heart of the practice is the assumption that it is I, the individual, whose desires are and should be met in a religious community. It places an unfair burden on the communities who have to host freeloaders, and disadvantages me as the seeker because I cannot begin to grasp the depths of a church’s joys or sorrows with one or two visits. Churches, ideally, are sites of depth, integrity, and learning, and stained-glass-window shopping, while it might offer a tantalizing glimpse or an off-putting spectacle, is no substitute for effortful action. Religious communities, after all, do not exist either for my sake or their own sake. They are places for meditation on things only signified by the building, if there is one. Fundamentally, they are in-between spaces, negative regions where disparate groups of persons project their efforts and involve themselves in communal faith and work. Church (s)hopping suspends commitments and therefore real, physical presence in relation to the community.

Such fine sentiments can only be followed by a confession of hypocrisy.

I haven’t trod the path out of institutional religion that many skeptics of my peer group have taken. To my mind, the church is the best place for a skeptic because it makes demands on my intellect and time, forcing me to develop my critical perspectives with rigor and grace. Not all churches would welcome my questioning, of course, but a church that walks with humility, can make room for a few mavericks, and is able to speak about its failures as well as its successes–I would sacrifice much to belong in such a place.

Last fall, I left the denomination in which I was raised. Most of my family has worked in that church, which owns and operates the college I attend, for three generations. En route out the door, I found myself drawn into a commitment to a local meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I have been with that meeting since, attending almost every Sunday. While still afflicted with ideological divisions (exacerbated by the wide theological diversity in the group) and personal conflicts, the tradition’s emphasis on communal discernment, silent waiting, and a focus on the immanent, mystical experience of God, it was a natural home for me. Here was a long tradition, vetted by time and tried by schisms, that, while small, has had an extraordinary effect on American history.

That said, I have recently become involved in what is colloquially known as a “serious relationship” with a beautiful young woman. My significant other and I now find ourselves in the position of both being stuck between an old tradition we have largely abandoned (not the same one) and an uncertain future. Therefore, we have tacitly committed to a phase of exploration–of, yes, church (s)hopping. We hope that this will be temporary and that we will find a place in which both of us can meaningfully and joyfully contribute to the life of the church and its work in the community.

This brought us to the door of a handsome, if eccentric, gem of a church in downtown Grand Rapids. Fountain Street Church.

FSC Exterior

 

Ensconced in a Romanesque and quasi-Byzantine structure erected in the 1920s, FSC (as it will be known from now on) describes itself as “Protestant in tradition and Baptist in history, we are now liberal in defining faith and nondenominational in expressing it.” Emerging out of a liberal Baptist congregation, over the 20th century the church moved further away from its more orthodox roots and became what I would describe as post-Christian in worldview. It imagines itself as a place where Christianity’s liberating vision for humanity outgrew its dogmatic specifics and blossomed into something more vibrant and open.

We attended the church on Palm Sunday, which for a more conventional church would mean a meditation on the story of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds, who expected him to inaugurate a new age of Jewish political independence. So, too, did Fountain Street commemorate this event, albeit in its own oblique way. Its liturgy could be best compared to collage art, appropriating disparate elements of what we normally think of as “profane” and “secular” culture and making a larger point. This is representative of the church’s overall approach, positioning itself as a locus whirling around which is a boundless world of wisdom and beauty to draw from. The church’s “gaze” on its appropriations ranged from almost naïve affirmation to intensely critical. I doubt one could come to FSC, stay for a whole service, and not come out without knowing something about where it stands.

FSC Interior

We read a call-and-response liturgy from Roald Dahl, heard both classical music and songs from The Little Shop of Horrors, heard readings from Mark and Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle. Eclectic, almost ravenously so, the church nevertheless never came off as pandering, at least to me. This was largely because of the presence of Rev. Dr. Frederick Wooden, the Senior Minister of the church. Affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, he brought a critical rigor and skilled oration to his sermon, entitled “Power and Glory.” Hopefully the church will post the text of the sermon online soon so I can speak about it in more detail, but suffice to say it was an unusually winding, deliberately structured sermon that avoided explicit bullet points but maintained rhetorical integrity.

A side note: the church seems to do far better than the college I attend at applying its principles of openness to culture and discernment. I want to discuss the reasons why in more depth at a later date.

My impressions of the church are largely positive. It is focused, rhetorically and–I hope to find–actually on serving the city in which it resides. The affirmation of beauty I found there resonated with my own leanings, its worship space is grand but relatively tasteful, and the clergy, if not the congregation, does not display a hostility for Christianity that I feared I might find. While it is nondenominational, it has a strong identity. It might be vulnerable to particularly bad leadership, but that is an issue for any church, and its freedom to colour outside the lines should serve it well. One caveat: it is a big church, which means that it could be easy to become chameleons, clinging to the fringes and camouflaging ourselves. Such are the pros and cons to weigh. Nonetheless, both of us have expressed a strong interest in returning here.

Purple Spring Review: The Love Symbol Album (1992)

Prince’s career since the 1980s crashed to a close has been one marred by decline, inconsistency, and some music that could even be described as indifferent. See the last few records released under his Warner Bros. contract for more evidence on that last point.

Throughout that time, the basic ingredients of Prince’s artistic work–mastery of instrumentation, comfortable genre-hopping, and solid songwriting–have been there for the most part. What was lost in the 1990s and for most of the time up until now is new ideas. At his peak, Prince was overflowing with sonic ideas that defined whole sections of music for years. Dirty Mind and 1999 had a profound impact on the nascent electronic dance music genre, and Parade and Around the World in a Day made a home for psychedelia in the 1980s. Since the advent of hip-hop’s golden age, Prince has been a relatively conservative figure. Eccentric and leftfield, to be sure, but still beholden to pop forms he helped establish almost three decades ago.

I’ve chosen this unnamed album from 1992, officially titled the unpronounceable symbol on the cover but usually called The Love Symbol Album or, as iTunes has it, Prince, because it is the most exciting, engaging album he released after 1990. Working with a new band–the New Power Generation–Prince here engages all of his signature sounds with a ferocity and ingenuity he would later strain but never quite reach again.

“My Name Is Prince” gets things going to a raucous, if somewhat unsatisfying, start. It’s a major-league dance workout, to be sure, and catchy if naught else. It also has the ungracious “privilege” of hosting some truly teeth-grating rap verses courtesy of NPG member Tony M. I find his delivery overblown and his rhymes less-than-inspiring at their best. It’s certainly a great deal of fun, though, and sets us off into the hit single and highlight of the first LP, “Sexy MF.” Incorporating old-school horn stabs and layered, spidery guitar lines, it hits a sweet spot between unmitigated sleaze and enjoyable sophistication to work well. The other noteworthy tracks on the first LP include “Morning Papers,” a lovely if saccharine ballad, and the more hard-edged “The Max.” Versatility has always been one of Prince’s strong suits when making albums because it allows him to make such sharp transitions in mood and sound without it sounding either desperate or unfocused.

On the second LP, the highlights include the biggest hit from the album, “7,” which reaches for a cosmic peak and damn near meets it. Its sentiments are expressed through lovingly overblown hyperbole, and the music is grounded by subdued drum beats and acoustic guitar chords. Check these lyrics:

All 7 and we’ll watch them fall

They stand in the way of love

And we will smoke them all

With an intellect and a savoir-faire

No one in the whole universe

Will ever compare

I am yours now and u are mine

And together we’ll love through

All space and time, so don’t cry

Prince is also in fine vocal form here, also ably using a sample from an Otis Redding song called “Tramp.” Another track to look into is “3 Chains of Gold,” another song that clearly looks to fill a stadium with sound. While “7” is more intimate, “3 Chains of Gold” is a true rock epic, featuring screaming guitars and soaring moments worthy of an arena rock band. Not to mention piano and strings galore. It drags in moments, but makes me wonder what it would be like to get a Prince album that embraced such musical complexity and fully invested in the arena rock idiom. “3 Chains of Gold” recalls Queen, and it’s the song I find myself returning to the most frequently and with the most pleasure. The album closes with another danceable funk song, “The Sacrifice of Victor,” certainly excellent if not the best dance-funk song Prince ever wrote. It’s a fitting conclusion to an album full of highlights but ultimately inconsistent.

Technically the album is bound together by a loose  (Very very loose, since even my tiger’s ears have a hard time hearing it) concept that includes, oddly enough, Kirstie Alley talking to Prince over the phone. I make such little mention of it because, in my four or five run-throughs of the album, it has made neither positive nor negative impression on me. I would recommend listeners disregard the concept–it makes things simpler and less bewildering that way.

I hesitate to call The Love Symbol Album Prince’s last great work. After all, he’s still recording and performing live shows. There could be a few more great records in him yet. There are also excellent songs on many of the subsequent records. Yet it is here that I want to bring our weeklong retrospective on Prince to an end. The Love Symbol Album is everything that Prince had perfected the decade before, brought much of the time to a musical apex by his skilled band. It is utterly satisfying even in its clunkier moments, and this makes it, to this tiger, the natural end point for discussing Prince’s great work. Let’s hope whatever he decides to release soon will eclipse it, but for now we’ll let the Purple One rest.

Come back next week for articles on something other than Prince. It’ll be a relief to all of us, but thanks for reading. This is the end of Purple Spring.

Purple Spring Review: The Black Album (1994)

Written by Alexius

Those troublesome rock musicians cause me no end of pain. I will release them when they are ready. In the meantime, they are feasting on hell’s finest cuisine, or at least the best of what I could hunt up in the last few hours. Raw meat isn’t to everyone’s taste, so I let them cook it. Too merciful? Perhaps. But we want to get this one well and out of the way. We’re well into this marathon of Prince reviews, and this might be one of the more intriguing works yet.

Prince’s musical style had been evolving since the early 1980s in a more pop-friendly direction. This is not to say that the music had grown less complex or more accessible–the weirdness of Parade and the cacophonous menagerie of Sign ‘O’ The Times are enough evidence to refute that–but the palette of sounds had grown away from straight synthesizer and drum-machine funk and toward more lush, expansive sounds.

This had led Prince and some others to worry that he was becoming too distanced from his core black audience. Originally intended for release in December of 1987, only a few months after Sign ‘O’ The Times dropped, the untitled slab you see above was shelved for seven years, leaked to all the hardcore fans, and finally released in 1994. It acquired an aura of mystique and mystery. Long period without a release plus completely black album cover with no credits equals a recipe for intrigue. If people know about something and can’t have it, God help the one who wants to keep it from them. The most likely story behind its long sojourn in limbo was that Prince had experimented with ecstasy and had a nightmarish trip.

Since I wasn’t too interested in music during the period this album was sitting on the shelf, I have no stories about feverishly anticipating the release of The Black Album, gnawing on my toenails and combing conventions for bootlegs. Considering the reach of the Internet and its tendency to dispel the power of the unknown, the gap between finding that this album existed and listening to it was a few days at most. That said, I was excited to see what a post-Purple Rain Prince would do with a project that had been feted as The Funk Bible before its first scheduled release date.

What does he do? What, indeed? Retreating wholesale from the overgrown wildness of his last few records, Prince tones down the rock bombast and plugs back into sickly addictive grooves. He opens with “Le Grind,” dispensing with any intros or sermons. A hard-hitting bass groove dominates the low end and Prince celebrates physical activity like few can. The track is an extended one, lasting over six minutes, and it makes the most of it. Piano riffs scatter for cover under the weight of the groove. The lyrics fall mostly along these lines:

Welcome to the Funk Bible

The new testament

People get ready, nouveau dance here

All the girls and all the boys

Get close, have no fear, (have no fear)

We’re gonna do le grind y’all

Once we’ve been properly introduced to The Black Album, we can get acquainted with its stark sonic landscape. The land is dotted with slick odes to supermodels (“Cindy C.”), a somewhat tepid, though still soulful, ballad (“When 2 R In Love”), and far more impressive funk workouts. Eminently danceable and relatively straightforward in comparison to Purple Rain and Parade, The Black Album is still no regression. While it does retreat from the eclecticism of those albums, the sound is still full of surprises and at times breathtakingly tight in the rhythm section. Especially recommended is “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton,” which coils and winds for seven minutes, keeping active and leaving the unprepared listener with an elevated heart rate.

Would I have been disappointed with this in 1987 had it been released and had I been possessed of any money? That’s a silly question, but I might have been. Listening today, however, what I hear is Prince creating inspired music. It’s less ambitious in some ways than its immediate predecessors, and it lacks the sheer scope of his best work, but The Black Album is 45 minutes of weaponized funk that never fails to feel dynamic and fresh. That’s enough, really.

Purple Spring Review: Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987)

PREVIOUSLY ON “OLD ALEXIUS”

(Lights up. The night is governed by a velvety yellow moon. The clouds have broken. A sad pipe organ plays in the abandoned church.)

Alexius: Harold Zo, you thought you could poison my blood and leave me stuck in slumberland while you took over my blog. What you did not realize is that I am not an animal of this hollow world. My power comes from beyond.

Mr. Harold Zo: I appreciate you not emphasizing the Mister. But let me tell you, the traffic numbers have been solid. Our perspectives on Prince will shape a few, yea, a few of this young generation who haven’t heard of His Purple Majesty.

(Alexius, inexplicably wearing a vampiric cloak, turns to face Mr. Harold Zo and his companions, who are tied up in the corner, their shadows pale and distended by the peaking moon. His fangs gleam in the unholy light.)

Quivver: You’ll never get away with this! The authorities know too much, and we will not go quietly!

Alexius: Hahah! Don’t spin such tales. This is hell. And I happen to know why you are here. You’re not on some cosmic tour. No.

Mr. Harold Zo: (Nervously twitching.) And why are we here, then?

Alexius: Pathetic wanderers. You pass here and there, playing your sad music. You won your skills in a game with the devil, and now you pay the penalty. Sure, you top the charts. But here? No one is here to shower you with praise. They’re too busy being eaten up by their own desires. Desire will be the death of all of us.

Mr. Harold Zo: How did you find out?

Alexius: You hacked into the psychic connction between me and my editor, did you not? Well, that means my editor had unfiltered access to your minds. He gave me that information–and a lot besides–about the time you were reviewing Parade.

Quake: Man, that’s a good record.

Alexius: Now, I will brook this infiltration of my blog no longer. I am writing the next review! What’s up next?

Quivver; Sign ‘O’ The Times. 

Alexius: Excellent! You have saved the best for me!

Mr. Harold Zo: That’s a matter of opinion.

Alexius: Silence! Or I’ll feed your guitar to the hungry ghosts.

Mr. Harold Zo: This isn’t over yet.

Alexius: Let’s get off script a bit here? This is all a little rote. OK. I’ll let you stew in here for a night and see how you feel in the morning.

Quake: Thanks for feeding us, at least.

Alexius: I’m an animal, not a sociopath.

Quake: Good point.

***

Sign ‘O’ The Times emerged from the ashes of a few other aborted projects Prince was working on after Parade. One of them was going to be another album with The Revolution, the band that had been working with him since before Purple Rain. Another was a triple album set to be called Crystal Ball, a title that was later bestowed on a four-disc compilation album in the late 90s.

I find it appropriate that the album emerged from so many dead ends. Compared to the relatively peaceful, if energetic, image of melancholy and bliss that was Parade, this album is bleak, distorted, and more of a thrill-ride or safari than a carnival. Prince sets the mood with the title track, a four-minute slice of prophecy commenting on AIDS, gang violence, and other social ills. While it leads into the psychedelic bliss-pop of “Play in the Sunshine,” that song is cut off at the end with a sharp “Shut up already! Damn!” There is room for both joy and sorrow on Sign ‘O’ The Times but all of the songs seem to have on eye on the sun exploding in the sky and the fire reigning down.

While it sounds merely chaotic and unfocused on the first listen (that impression does not go away), subsequent run-throughs reveal a more considered, focused piece of work. It is consumed with venturing through all aspects of Prince’s, at this point, cluttered persona. His rock deity is indulged on “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” the aforementioned title track stabs at social consciousness, religion thunders into “The Cross,” and there is plenty of hard-edged funk to go around. “Housequake” evokes disaster and partying at the same time, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “Strange Relationship” are a one-two punch exploring both the more tender and weirder sides of Prince’s sexual prowess. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” references The Wizard of Oz while raving up the crowd into a frenzy.

Eclectic to and beyond a fault, Sign ‘O’ The Times is the ultimate portrait of Prince. All of the songs are at least excellent, with many pushing over into mythic territory. It’s not a cohesive statement on anything in particular, but it does demonstrate beyond a doubt that Prince is a musical genius and a fantastic entertainer. That’s all a Prince album has to do to be captivating as far as I’m concerned. Marshaling all of his considerable powers and myriad influences, this album remains the broadest, most complete illustration of who Prince is and was as an artist. Start with this one if you haven’t delved into his work yet. You won’t regret it.

Purple Spring Review: Parade (1986)

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

Sometimes people can dazzle you with their sheer lack of consistency. I was so dazzled once reading a review that celebrated Prince for being a shape-shifting eccentric who was able to survey the vast landscape of musical genres and say to it, “mine.” At the same time, however, the writer dismissed Parade and its immediate predecessor, Around the World in a Day, as the least satisfying of his albums. Those two thoughts might not have seemed to conflict in the writer’s mind, but in mine they are as opposite as east and west. This record is Prince at his most inward-looking and esoteric, the music speaking of exotic animals and locales, giving us a full-blown aural fantasy. It’s hopeless, romantic, and tragic.

Parade is another soundtrack, this time for Under the Cherry Moon. Wikipedia’s introduction to its page on this film reads, in part:

Under the Cherry Moon is a 1986 American musical drama film directed by and starring Prince as a gigolo named Christopher Tracy and former Time member Jerome Benton as his partner, Tricky. Together, the pair swindle wealthy French women. The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to swindle her when he finds out that she receives a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday.

The film was a commercial and critical failure, which probably did nothing to polish the prestige of its soundtrack. This is not inevitable, of course. Plenty of films are more beloved for their soundtracks than their filmic value. Consider The Crow, for instance, or Heavy Metal. Of course, part of the reason there might have been resisitance to thsi album is that it upsets many of people’s expectations for what a Prince album should do. What I mean is that the Prince that the people of the 1980s (probably good people, at least most of them) had come to know the smooth, slick, funky sex idol. This is understandable. Yet, and as the leader of a rock band with psychedelic inclinations myself, I cannot help but be biased in this matter, I think this represents a huge step forward for Prince.

Justin Timberlake recently released his album The 20/20 Experience, which has drawn and earned frequent comparisons with Prince’s 1980s work. More to the point, a tidbit of behind-the-scenes conversation came out in an interview. Apparently, one of JT’s friends, on hearing early versions of some of the songs off the new record, commented that they were “music you could see,” hence the title of the album. What this gets at–and what the writer of this Paste review gets right–is that this describes a certain cinematic quality to the music, a sensual tangibility and grace that makes it more evocative and imagistic than most music. Parade, even more than the bombastically perfect Purple Rain, has a cinematic sensibility. Songs have clear “settings” and the listener can enter into them. They breathe, have ample space to maneuver, and are full of valuable little curiosities for us to pick through. Parade is a trip to paradise in miniature.

We’ll get the hit out of the way first. “Kiss” is the most traditional-sounding song on the album, relatively speaking. Thudding drum-machine beats keep the time, Prince drops his sugary falsetto over endearing romantic lyrics, and while it’s certainly not as spartan in its production as many of the tracks on Dirty Mind, it drives forward rather than meandering. That description might have implied a low opinion of “Kiss,” but I think it’s one of Prince’s best hits. It has a genuine uplift to it, especially when its simple guitar solo swoops down. “Rule my world,” Prince commands, and despite being a straight guy my hand snaps to salute “yes, sir!” The sound builds over time, adding in mallet instruments and that aforementioned guitar.

My personal favourite song, and the one I find most emblematic of the approach here, is the eerie “Under the Cherry Moon.” Vague inklings of an apocalypse come forward. What is to be done under that cherry moon, whose reddish tinge could be seen either as an angry crimson or tender blush? Why, die or have sex of course. These two acts, so intimately connected in Prince’s songs, come together as tender partners. It’s a song that pines for a break in the norm–death, wild kisses, a purposeful destiny, anything–that will drive away his heart’s wanderlust. A close second-best for me is “Life Can Be So Nice,” which tingles and twists. Its music is wrapped like embarrassingly verdant greenery around beats that leap here and there, difficult to pin down at any moment.

Life can be so nice. A wonderful world, paradise
Kiss me once, kiss me twice. Life can be so nice. So nice

I would wager this is as close to a thesis statement for the album as we are ever going to get. This is music that is pure ear candy, showering the listener with songs celebrating life, affection, and the romantic ideal. All of that is shaded, of course, by a realization of how fleeting and depressing life can be. Soulful and wintry, “Sometimes It Snows in April” caps off the little carnival by sounding its death knell. Joy merges and tangles up with sorrow, separating and bending out. “April” is a song possessed with a slow-freezing melancholy that is beautiful but distancing. By far the longest track on the album, it has a powerful impact, colouring our perception of what came before. Life has to end sometime, and winter can hang past its due.

I’ve given up on trying to understand Prince. Like any person, his complications sprawl wide and run deep like veins of ore. Because celebrities are presented by media and often their own publicity staff in relatively simple ways, we think of them as accessible and comprehensible figures. Dirty Mind and 1999 told Prince’s stories with no embellishment for the most part. They were radical but, despite the length of the latter, within our grasp. Parade is strong, effective music that hints at deeper currents, being more introspective, wilder, and more pleasurable than most pop could hope to be. It’s not as vast or all-encompassing as Purple Rain–it is narrating a narrower, deeper story. I would never recommend people start here with Prince; I would rather they be pleasantly surprised.

Purple Spring: Purple Rain (1984)

Written by Quake

No pussyfooting around it. This album swaggers from beginning to end. No more slithery funk, no more sparse, no-nonsense production. Purple Rain is all about the nonsense. Like your prototypical midnight movie phenomenon, this is a work of operatic eccentricity that opens with a sermon and ends with a prayerful power ballad. Electric surges are the norm.

Already in only three albums we’ve moved from the dry, disarmingly direct Dirty Mind through the lush urban beat jungles of 1999 and now, with Purple Rain, Prince brings all of his myriad talents into a single barrage. Nine tracks long, this is technically the soundtrack to a film I haven’t seen that bears the same name. Its songs continue delving into Prince’s fascination with the overlap between procreative pleasure and impending doom.

“Let’s Go Crazy” is almost a repeat of “1999,” save for the fact that it improves on it in every way. It’s a dynamic, carnivalesque ode to going bananas on the eve of the apocalypse. For the first time that I can remember, we see our ringleader flex his muscles on the six-string with a startling solo that, despite its virtuosity, is mixed much lower than in a conventional album. Excess done tastefully–this is a balance that few achieve in their lifetime. Yet for nigh forty minutes this is what Prince is doing. “Take Me With U,” opening with a blitz of drums, incorporates orchestral sounds into a rhythmic world much more complicated and intriguing than it might first sound. Its sentiments are simple, but the execution is excellent, maximizing the value Prince gets out of each and every line.

Shifting to a far more subdued sound, or so it might first seem, “The Beautiful Ones” brings out Prince’s legendary scream. As much as I enjoy the first couple of  albums covered here, rock-star theatricality suits him better than provocative-yet-straightfaced sex jams. This song reaches ecstatic highs riding on his falsetto, pushing synths to set the mood while the bass drums and distorted guitars cloak the whole track in a kind of heavy metal vibe. From here, we find “Computer Blue,” which has the most in common with 1999. Yet here even the heavily regimented beats conjure up menace and passion, its militaristic march dissolving into guitar frenzies that are far more expressionistic than anything on that album. I would say that on Purple Rain, Prince lets his instrumentation loose. While in his earlier work it merely set the scene, here it owns the stage as much as his ridiculously versatile voice.

Perhaps the mid-album highlight is “Darling Nikki,” a kind of ballad that dispenses with all opacity with lyrics like “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” The synths push out smoke and red light, giving the track the feel of a horror film, though one that sounded immensely fun to be in. As the song rushes to a close in an extended instrumental outro, bass-kicks throb in the background while Prince’s guitar thrashes and the synths eventually give way to strange voices that haunt and wail.

“When Doves Cry” lacks a bassline but it represents one of Prince’s pinnacles in songwriting. Its lyrics are vivid and obtuse, the beat defiant, and Prince himself singing in many voices. Guitar solos punctuate it. It has daring and life to spare. This is Prince at his best. Immediately following it is another song that looks into the eyes of death, “I Would Die 4 U.” The narrator sings,

You’re just a sinner I am told

Be your fire when you’re cold

Make u happy when you’re sad

Make u good when u are bad

Being acquainted with both sin and its redemption, Prince makes wonderful use of these simple binary opposites. His persona is flexible, able to bend this way and that to make room for almost any kind of sentiment he wishes to express, whether flamboyantly sexual or touchingly sincere. That he often leans toward the latter on Purple Rain speaks to another strength of this record and the other work he would make in the later 80s: a precise command of an image that becomes more complicated, actually growing in stature and complexity over time. No longer content with being just a love machine, Prince has broadened and become more alien and at the same time more relatable.

The penultimate track is “Baby I’m A Star,” a dance-rock track that insists on moving all over the floor and beyond. It has a post-disco drum machine beat and some truly inspired piano additions. “We are a star,” sings the chorus. Hard to tell whether he’s talking about himself and his woman or all the Princes.

Finally, the album closes with its nearly 9-minute title track. Deeply apologetic, wreathed in the atmosphere of almost sacramental reverence, it is piercing in its intensity. Building slowly over its extended running time, it strikes you at first as a kind of epic power ballad. It is also, of course, a closing track, summing up the power of the preceding eight songs and channeling every watt of it into its fiery guitar work. Maximalism never sounded so necessary.

Purple Rain overflows. It is gilded by flourishes, never stopping to ask the listener’s opinion of it before charging ahead. It is clearly using Prince’s new backing band, The Revolution, to its fullest without distracting from the leading man. It is the greatest Prince album. Stay cool.

Purple Spring Review: 1999

 

Written by Quivver

This album has been on my wish list for some time now. We found this whole stack of Prince albums in the Tiger’s inventory and I chose this one to take on. I could have had an easier time of it if i had chosen some of the Minneapolis popstar’s more, eh, conventional work. I have one story before we start.

I was in Chicago. The first time I encountered Prince’s music was during a set at a fairly high-class wedding somewhere downtown. A far cry from the dives I was used to, and I didn’t have a thing to wear. I had to take a cab to get there because my friend was borrowing my car, and it was a woman driving. I’m an impatient soul, so I couldn’t abide 20 minutes of respectable silence in the back of a musty cab while the whirl of the city was going on just outside the window. Eh?

We got on a conversation about music. I probably told her that I was a DJ on my way to my first high-end set. That’s just how I would have talked back then. 1999 came up. I said I hadn’t known much about Prince, and she said that he had been one of the bigger pioneers in how to work drum machines and sequencers and make real music using this inorganic machinelike stuff. It was fascinating. Later that night, “Lady Cab Driver” got mentioned. I played it  as part of the set. It was goddamned phenomenal, right? That stuck with me. I forgot my early enthusiasm for 1999 and let is simmer on the shelf for a long time. Now I’m back, and it’s good to be here.

1999 is an album that, for me, defines the Prince that I love. The first record we spun on this blog, Dirty Mind, has this fantastic groove and its appeal to me as a rhythmic artist is immense. That said, Prince has his shit altogether too…together on that album. It’s controlled, not ecstatic. It has grooves but very little scope. With more room to breathe, Prince lets his inhibitions truly fly–whatever those might have been. While he was certainly invoking physical nakedness on Dirty Mind and its counterpart/successor Controversy, this comes in from left field, another realm altogether. What’s odd is that this feels altogether more organic and lush than those albums despite mostly dispensing with most conventional instrumentation. Think of how the album starts–you have the tripped-out and mangled vocals “I only want you to have some fun.” It’s schizophrenic in a way, menacing yet comforting. Millions of people obviously wanted this album, but I doubt very much they knew they wanted it.

That first song starts out with these masses synth chords, just a hint of funk guitar, and a drum machine beat. It also defines a new, altogether broader range of subject matter for him. Sex is never passé. You have to do it creatively, but it’s got the benefit of being as basic to human existence as drinking water while being a billion times more interesting to sing about. Here, though, we have a bizarre mix, almost like someone was playing two tracks over each other in Prince’s head. It’s as though, the way he saw the world,  religious apocalypse and freakishly good sex are twins separated at cosmic birth. Party like it’s 1999! Party because the world is going to end! That some Ecclesiastes stuff there. What are our little plans compared to the joy of the present, the impending doom of the too-near-future? I dunno. That’s what we have Prince for.

From there, the album just drives through all the singles. “Little Red Corvette,” which I suppose is about a fairly loose woman and a one-night stand, has this remarkably naked purity to it. Here you don’t notice how computerized it is. Much more in terms of guitar work here. I don’t like the song as much as the rest of the album, but it’s a goddamned fantastic pop song. Just not my style. What I find more intriguing is the rapturous delight that is “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” Starts with just thirty seconds of buildup, almost like a house track, before launching this irresistible synth attack. Prince sings high and, to my ears, a little screechy. His voice lets him wear infinite guises, and this one is so sincere with his “nothing wrong if it feels all right” sermon that it almost seems un-sleazy. The lyrics start out with sadness–we know that Prince has just lost someone–but you don’t feel regret or a tinge of darkness. The song is a huge hit at clubs if you slow it down a bit.

It’s those extended, left-field jams that get me the most excited. That’s the nature of being a musician and someone who works in electronic dane music. You hear so much that eventually you want to hear something unabashedly eccentric once in awhile. “Automatic” springs this surprise on you. Once again, starts with a drum pattern and some hand claps. A sort of grating, weepy synth starts up. You feel trapped in, claustrophobic, even. “I feel more comfortable around you when I’m naked,” he croaks during a crazy bridge. It’s radical. I work in the rock world right now, and one of the worst things I find is that naked ambition is frowned on. You have to make everything look effortless. While I agree that misplaced or mismanaged grand plans can lead to disasters–I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate–Prince’s soaring ambitions and his inability to hide anything are charming and endearing. Not to mention a little scary. You have to work hella hard to put out that much work and evolve so far in such a short time.

While you also have odes to American freedom (some actual gratitude coming from Prince, for crying out loud) in “Free,” to me the real punchline of the album comes in the penultimate track, “All the Critics Love U in New York.” It’s a scathing, if playful, takedown of so much preening and self-importance. “Purple love and war is all you’re headed for. But don’t show it.” It’s brilliant. Contrasts himself as this gleaming purple sex god and leaves the rock mainstream–to which Prince was eventually added–looking greyscale by comparison.

1999 lets it loose and stretches so far you can see the clockwork under its polished skin. I love it so much I could die or have sex. Preferably both at the same time.

Purple Spring Review: Dirty Mind (1980)

dirtymind

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

My band and I will be taking over blogging responsibilities while Alexius takes the next seven days off. We managed to hack into the psychic connection he has with his editor friend (full credit to Quivver there). We got in, proposed this series on Prince, and more-or-less shanghaied the old cat into agreeing to the whole shebang.

Before we hook electrodes into Prince’s Dirty Mind like the mad scientists our child selves wanted to be, let’s introduce the lineup for this week. One review per day, seven in total. Coming up on the main stage for the next week running, we have the masterful musical menageries of:

1. Dirty Mind (1980)

2. 1999 (1982)

3. Purple Rain (1984)

4. Parade (1986)

5. Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987)

6. The Black Album (1988/1994)

7. Love Symbol (1992)

That will take us up the cascading, starlit road of Prince’s ascent, reach its purple-saturated apex, and finish as Prince approached the upheavals and shakier quality of the 1990s. Our journeys will carry us across the popular music map, traversing time, space, a whole continent of kink, and the acute, visionary sounds of a man who towers above all others who seek to carry a guitar and pick up dates at the same time. Let me tell you, it is possible with the proper weight training regimen.

Now! Let’s get the drum-machine roll started for Dirty Mind!

Prince performed nearly all of the instruments and all of the vocals for this album’s eight songs. He would drop some absurdly lengthy records later in his career, but this album prefers to blitz the listener, leaving her or him in a funk-induced catatonic state. Sparing no time to dawdle in extended jams or in any other distraction that might slow the momentum, Prince blazes through this thirty-minute studio set with no boundaries and a heck of a lot to prove.

The album’s sound is constructed on straight-from-the-gut propulsive beats luxuriously bathing in synths. Organic sounds tend to muscle their way in through bass grooves and spiky guitar work. Later on, Prince’s music will be awash in glittery production but here the sound is far more open and spare. The album is so tight already that I fear adding more sounds to it would cast it off balance, like a spinning top. Other than an exclamatory keyboard solo near the end of “Head,” Prince keeps the focus squarely on infecting the ears of the listener with insidious, probably borderline-illegal grooves.

Dirty Mind never sticks its head–or any other part of its impressive body–in one genre for very long. Often, it’s pulling from all over the place. Its blatantly calculated shock value aside, the incest-themed “Sister” (which has quite the head-spinning effect on me despite its 90-second span) is an impressive punk song. Like the rest of the album, it’s a model of efficient music that has a goal in mind, accomplishes it, and retreats. Even the longer pieces like the street-level celebration “Uptown” and the final track, “Partyup,” focus on rocking hard rather than all night long. Prince probably has some important business to take care of, so there’s no reason to gild the lily. Avoiding double entrendres and going straight for the heart of the matter, Prince sings mostly in the upper level of his vocal range. Call me crazy, but even as a devil-spawn rock star who used to moonlight as an English teacher, I started to dig his skeletal beats and unabashed danceability. Disco might have died by the time 1980 shambled upon the world, but Dirty Mind still has a use for it along with its New Wave, punk, and more straightforward rock influences. It’s funky, but in a more lucid, businesslike, yet still hot way. It’s worlds away from Parliament/Funkadelic and anticipates still more radical shifts in direction that the Purple One would take later.

It’s too bad I didn’t get to hear any tear-duct shattering guitar solos here. Otherwise, Dirty Mind is just about flawless. Profane but tender songs like “When You Were Mine” lead seamlessly into blazing dance tracks like “Do It All Night.” Styles merge, and the sonic world we live in is sparse but rich, curated and sensually sophisticated. Rock gods, take notice. This is how you do grand! This is the way the music of the 1980s should have gone! I’m a broken man with a broken eardrum, but I can hear loud and clear that this album still sounds current thirty years after it dropped.

Rock gods, I’m sorry if I gave you offense. I’ll do my customary penitence and offer up a bounty of cocaine to the ablution fires. I quit the stuff years ago, but I know how you old guys do love the stuff.

 

Keep tuned in for a review of 1999 tomorrow. Those clueless rock stars only think they have me fooled. I’ll do ’em in in the end.–Alexius

Pure & Sexy: Prince’s Allure

Prince

Prince, the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, has for the last decade or so been a relatively quiet presence in the pop culture world. Before moving on, I should qualify that statement. He has been quiet compared to his striding, titanic status in the 1980s. He has never disappeared, never stopped putting out recordings–however difficult they might be to find–and always kept up his profile enough so that people can’t forget about him.

Lately, he has been pushing himself further into the spotlight, and I can only see that as a good thing. Whatever the quality of the recordings he puts out, Prince represents a certain breed of pop superstar that is rare in any age: a prodigious musician, master of spectacle, and sexual/quasi-religious icon all mixed into one man. Few others have bent gender conventions as skillfully, sung about sex so soulfully, or played live shows with as much gusto and raw charisma as Prince. But those are quantitative differences. Many pop stars, present and past are talented or have fascinating or enigmatic personal lives. What are the unique qualities that make Prince’s music and persona so fascinating to a feline such as me?

Sexuality is the default topic for pop music. Popular songs are laced with so many hormones I’m surprised neither the RIAA nor its captive radio audience hasn’t collapsed from pituitary shutdown at this point. NPR reported here on the strong correlation between “reproductive” messages in songs and their popularity on the Billboard charts. Music has this uncanny ability to align us with its rhythms, to take our bodies and turn them into dancing conduits. Our rational faculties often have no say in the matter–music strips us down to the hardware and starts pushing buttons and crossing wires, sometimes in pleasurable ways and sometimes in ways that leave us sore or discombobulated. Dance music has a particularly potent, sometimes I would say weaponized, form of this manipulation. Prince fits well into the pop music world, then. “Reproductive messages” abound in his work, and onstage the man has a notoriously glorious lack of hangups.

I could just post photos of him all day.

Back in the 1980s, I could say that Prince would have had a notably brazen approach to writing sexual lyrics. This is the artist responsible for giving us enough parental outcry to ruin hip-hop cover art forever with parental guidance stickers. And for what? Lyrics like this:

She had so many devices

Everything that money could buy

She said, “Sign your name on the dotted line”

The lights went out and Nikki started to grind

Wholesome family entertainment–basically Prince’s middle name. That’s from “Darling Nikki,” one of the greatest songs about mind-blowing sexual ecstasy ever written. Let’s look at our own time, however. Far more explicit lyrics have and will be written every day than His Purple Majesty could hope to match. At least in quantity. So the shock value is no longer there. What continues to draw me?

I would say that the most compelling part of Prince’s music is its constant, self-conscious wrestling with sexuality as a part of something larger. His songs are often shine like neon strip club sign and angelic halos at the same time. He is a Jehovah’s Witness. Intimacy to him is almost always connected to glory, to a spiritual connection found between people and between people and God. It is often bleak, always blunt, but in more cases than not is reaching for a kind of transcendence. Listening to “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Adore,” “Temptation,” and others is a more surreal and complicated experience than your standard edition pop fare. The first song on that list, especially, feels too close for comfort, inviting the listener into a warped but oddly pure world. Pure. What Prince has is a purity, perhaps a naïvety even. He is convinced the music can change the world and that love can be true, whatever other attendant messiness you might encounter. I am skeptical of this, being a tiger after all, but it’s an intriguing sentiment nonetheless.

It is this quality, this straight-faced, open and sincere investigation of sex in lyrics and stage presentation that sets Prince apart. Combined with the other qualities I listed above, it is absolutely clear to me that, despite wildly uneven output, we can consider Prince’s body of work one of the most (oddly) sensitive and poignant in the pop canon.

Series Preview: Purple Spring

Intrepid readers, we are about to set sail on an ocean of violets! Put away your shame, strut like the world’s coming down around you and you just don’t care, and take a bubble bath with your pants on. This spring break from March 15, Old Alexius will be playing host to a whole series of retrospective album reviews. The featured artist?

No one in particular.

The week of March 17 through the 24th, I will be putting up a review of a Prince album every day. I’ll mostly be covering his more forward-looking 80s and early 90s work and give maybe one review of what he’s produced since.

Before that comes to pass, however, I’ll be using next week as a springboard into this experiment in daily posting. Next Wednesday and Friday there will be posts about my general fascination with Prince and the qualities of his music that we should be looking at, respectively.

It’s all terribly exciting, but we have a whole week to get through. Please return to your studies, work, or other fulfilling daily activity. Alexius out.

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