Moon on Prince: He had more tools than just about anybody. Ever.
A critic’s take on how to remember Prince
Lovesexy tour opening. September 1988. After party at Paisley Park. It was a tent full of ego overdrive — music business people, models and radio luminaries chowing expensive catering and buzzing about the show. There was a stage set up, with a drum kit and a white grand piano much like the one he’d just played at the arena in Bloomington. Somebody said they’d play after midnight. Then, after one. And then, before the DJ could even bring down the mix, piano chords from Prince. By himself. This brought applause, the rush of expectation: Here comes something special.
Pretty soon, though, some denizens of the tent went back to conversation. Prince just kept playing, pawing at the same few chords in a steady rhythm. It was a little like a march, or a church processional. Nothing fancy, head-bobbing tempo. But he was deeply committed to it. Every once in awhile he’d venture into the upper end of the piano for a quick flourish, then go right back to the pocket — one minute suggesting Billy Preston, the next Honky Cat-era Elton John. This wasn’t concert music. I don’t think he considered it any kind of warm up, or anything remotely related to show business. This was simply the pursuit of a groove — exactly what he would have been doing inside if he didn’t have company. As he worked it over, the simple vamp became like the heartbeat of the area, took on a magnetic power. It was as though Prince was tenderizing the environment, subliminally laying the groundwork. The musicians materialized and joined in one by one. Very suddenly, we were in the midst of a full-on rumbling funk jam. And then, just like that, a Prince show at full steam.
Alongside the many hits and the incredible showmanship and the herculean output and all the rest of his accomplishments, this is important to remember about Prince: He was an artist forever in pursuit of transcendent sound. Dedicated to finding and exploiting communication pathways in pop music that hadn’t been trampled or trivialized yet. The tributes talk about how he did the business his way, and he sure did. He did stardom his way too. Superseding all that, though, is this career-long chase for the addictive, relentlessly alive, perpetually levitating sound.
In that quest, he had more tools than just about anybody. Ever.
He found the “thing” that made the beat his inside the sticky pads of a now-vintage drum machine — and showed generations how, just by introducing the shadow of a hiccup into the pattern, it was possible to deepen (and irreversibly personalize) a groove. And then, because he could, he’d turn around and do the same thing sitting down at the drum kit. Where he was wicked good. He routinely found transcendence through the guitar, in rhythm parts defined by staccato single-note spikes and solos that went in the other direction, flowing with a kind of supernatural grace. And let’s be clear: He didn’t just reach back and shred on every tune. He thought about guitar solos in visual terms, in staging terms. He built settings that would optimize the drama of a guitar-player spotlight moment, then just walked in and went to work.
Prince considered himself a living link to music of the past and near-present — the vitality we feel in his music has to do with the way it incorporates the energy of James Brown and Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder (most obviously) and also Louis Jordan and Billie Holiday. Prince grabbed everything, twisted it to suit his own purposes. He manufactured transcendence with jabbering horn lines that glanced lovingly at Duke Ellington’s band, and buzzy keyboard stabs a Van Halen fan could love. He did it by multi-tracking his voice into a strident high-harmony whirlwind that screamed “girl group gone awry.” This he took even further awry when Wendy and Lisa joined in.
Exhibit A: “1999.” Here is a vocal harmony blend so arrestingly unique it has come to define the song. Maybe it is the song. I’ve listened thousands of times and still don’t know. But then I was dreaming when I wrote this.
Here we must pause to talk about the singing. The human voice conveys emotional nuance in ways instruments simply can’t, and when a singer understands this on the intuitive level Prince did, the most contrived material can be transformed into something wrenching and intensely honest, a transmission of pure, unfiltered soul. That’s where Prince lived as a singer. He gave you lover’s anguish in every color and flavor imaginable — from sentimental (“When You Were Mine”) to sullen despondence (“Nothing Compares 2 U”) — and was believable every time.
Part of this is about proximity: He approached singing in the studio as intimate work, a game of going beyond and between the notes to uncover stuff you’d only pick up if you were right there, next to him. His catalog includes endless variations on flirty pillowtalk; each has distinct character, and each lands at a different place on the horniness spectrum. Likewise, he is frighteningly specific about loneliness and sadness: The blues-tinged anger of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” is about a galaxy away from the more philosophical (but no less visceral) weeping of “The Beautiful Ones.” We process his recorded screams (there’s a characteristically great one in “I Would Die for You”) as confessional outbursts, but they’re also worthy of study as musical events, polytonal arrays flecked with intense dissonance. Listening to him, on record or live, you got the sense that this is not random manufactured drama; he shredded his vocal cords to fit the situation, to offer particular clues about particular torments.
As funky as he could instantly be, Prince was also a master of control. The three-minute marvel that is “Do U Lie?,” from Parade, begins as a little French music-hall bonbon. He sings the opening verse with a proper, buttoned-up delivery, and as he goes on, he skips into falsetto for a thrilling imitation of an opera singer. Then, without missing a beat, he changes character to conjure the weeping-willow pitch-bending genius of Sarah Vaughan. You don’t question it, the whole thing just flows, a river of music.
While we’re geeking out, just one more (often discussed) tiny moment, on the astoundingly sung “Adore” from Sign o The Times, that provides insight into Prince’s at once devious and detail-oriented nature. In one verse, he’s talking to a lover, asking questions about their recent assignation. He wonders “Are you afraid of me?” then, as a followup, asks “Was I the first?” Except there’s a canny overdub on the word “first.” He’s very clearly also asking “Was I the best?”
Prince was the best in at least this one way: Coordinating and harnessing various aspects of the craft — his writing, instrumental skill, singing ability, etc. — to serve pop songs that he conceived of and treated as art. He was driven to create and experiment and also share, and maintained that desire throughout his career — most obviously with the rhythmic ideas that spread from his band to Morris Day and the Time to the productions of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But this same drive was evident on Musicology, in the early 2000s, and on his recent records, notably Plectrumelectrum with 3rdEyeGirl from 2014.
And that X-factor thing, that irrepressible spirit, was always evident in concert. As a performer, he didn’t merely take the stage and roll out some fizzy choreography as accompaniment to the hits: He involved his audience. He created a shared experience. Just by working over a two-chord piano vamp. Just by snapping his fingers. Just by saying “Dig if you will...”
That capacity for transforming the air in a performance space is, as we know from every Super Bowl halftime since his, not something every artist shares. Prince matters as example of the artist on a quest — first to personalize everyday kick drums and common sounds, and then, through that sound, make people feel some highly specific something, to move the emotional needle. He did this with alarming regularity: Examine literally any element of any Prince track from any era, and you will encounter an iconoclast who is deep under the hood, bending sound to his own ends. Even if you don’t like the song he was selling, you had to give it up: This person was bringing something he believed in, passionately. He was all-in. Always.
That’s what makes this such a jarring departure. Unlike many of the rock-era icons who have died recently, Prince wasn’t done. His creative mission was still in progress. He was touring on the catalog — hey, everybody does — but he was still engaged in new music, daily. The studio gave him the luxury of trying stuff out, testing music of different densities, temperatures, identities. And he did that. Over and over. He recorded constantly — those who’ve worked at Paisley Park describe not just one big vault, but several rooms filled with tape, hard drives, etc. All containing music that will, with any luck, be shared with the public.
The music world could use this trove right now. Not to sell. Not because he was hardwired for hooks like nobody else and there are likely some hidden gems there. But because it represents something profound about what it means to be an artist: The daily work that’s involved. The trial-and-error. The willingness to fail. And fail some more. The curiosity that drives someone to make a guitar sound like brakes squealing or doves crying. With this death, we don’t currently have any examples of this diabolically unusual confluence of artistry, restlessness, and craftsmanship in music anymore. Here’s hoping it’s not gone for good.
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There’s more, always more, going on in the background while Bowie works the front of the housemedium.com