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.