Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How To Make Your Own Prince Masterpiece.

By now you should know how to tell your Prince masterpieces apart. Dirty Mind is the new wave masterwork, complete with rubbery synths and compressed drums. 1999 is the funk workout with nine-minute jams that should have been nine minutes longer. Purple Rain is the rock and roll monster, with songs like Computer Blue burning so hot nobody noticed that Prince forgot the second verse. Parade is the Avant-Garde opus, the one for the True Prince Fan and probably the most original music of his career. And of course Sign O’ The Times where it all magically comes together. But for a such a pop genius, where is the pop masterpiece?

I think that is Around the World in a Day, but don’t be surprised if you don’t know it or don’t agree. I didn’t agree either for years; ten years in fact until the CD burning-Ipod era came upon me. The Ipod is doing many drastic things to music, and whether good or bad is a question for another era, but there is no question that it has changed the way we look at music. Now we can ditch the songs we hate and break the rules of the album experience, something that has been both good and bad in that we now have a whole new generation who cannot appreciate an album as a work of art.

But the Ipod has allowed us to not only ditch songs but recontextualise them so that an album is now no longer a document of the recording experience but the listening one. Now I get to decide how an album flows. So now I can insert the funky version of Honky Tonk Women in Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed instead of the lame country original and suddenly a great album becomes rapturous. Suddenly I can alter one of rock longest running Achilles heels: the poorly sequenced record.

You know them don’t you. Albums that are lesser than the sum of their parts, records that are great, song for song but fail because of how the songs are strung together. Albums like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo habitual, Billy Joel’s The Bridge and Prince’s Around the World in a Day. No offence, but sometimes an artist, even Prince, is a poor judge of his own work. The hits were obvious but there were also buried between long stretches of art wank. Lugubrious bad acid trips that were probably fun to make but were a slog to listen to.

So I got to work by ditching the utter crap first. Gone was The Ladder, the pointless faux gospel written with his Dad and gone was Condition of the Heart, which some classify as an epic, but is really just an overblown soul number that took way too long to start. The rest though, the rest is something else. I opened the album with:

1. Temptation.
One of prince loudest rock jams with perhaps his rawest guitar playing ever (just try to get over the squall that opens it). He was never this unhinged again and when the drums and horns (?) come in you know he’s a goner. Prince is too busy screaming to actually sing, but you’ll be too busy rocking to actually care. Of course 4 minute of balls out rock give way to 4 minutes of artsy pretension but you have to take the good with the bad sometimes. The dialogue, between a stern god and a horny prince over a fine girl was silly then and is ludicrous now, but just go along with it because after nine minutes of temptation comes...

2. Raspberry Beret.
It’s easy to forget how brilliant he is at a simple pop song. After Temptation ends in a dirge the famous Raspberry Beret percussion is a welcome wake up call. And those swelling strings still sound as great as you remember.

3. Tambourine.
After three minutes of super pop, it’s time for the funk jam. That is Tambourine. Buried originally after that snore Condition of the Heart, Tambourine sounds even better put beside a great song. Better than Housequake? Maybe.

4. Paisley Park.
After Tambourine I’ve put a psychedelic triptych that now forms the emotional core of the album. The three songs crystalize the themes of the entire album: escape, utopia and the struggle to move beyond just sex. Paisley Park is actually one of Prince most underrated songs, cushioned as it is by a sprawl of spiraling guitars. Yes you read right, listen to it again.

5. 4 the Tears in Your Eyes.
Since two songs are gone I had to put two new songs in but couldn’t go too far or that would be cheating. Instead I stuck to songs from the same sessions. 4 The Tears in Your Eyes was originally put on the We are the World album, but it make more sense here as it may be his most successful psychedelic work. Even more utopian than Paisley Park it still boasts a killer beat and harmonies from Wendy and Lisa.

6. Around the World in a Day.
The title track. Every bit as stunning as when you probably first heard it, the Moroccan strings and Arabian nights percussion still sound like transmissions from a lost David Lean movie.

7. America.
Fine, the Reagan-democrat lyrics were lame then and lamer now, but this one of those unabashed party starters like Purple Rain’s Baby I’m a Star. The band, probably knowing that their leader was knee deep in bullshit played like they were committing mass murder.

8. Pop Life.
My favorite song on the album. A rare moment of lyrical focus on such a trippy record, Pop Life is where the pixie dust effects wore off and perhaps the first sign that Prince was getting tired of it all. “What the matter with your life? Is the poverty bringing you down? What's that you putting in your nose? Is that where all your money goes?" He sang, prefiguring the social consciousness that would explode on Sign O’ the Times and Lovesexy. But if the lyrics are maudlin the music was miraculous.... until the bridge. Near the end of one of Prince’s lightest melodies comes his darkest moment. The song collapses on itself and you hear lots of disorienting crashes and bumps followed by loud cheers. Taped way back in 1981 during his disastrous opening slot for the Rolling Stones, the sample is actually the crowd booing and stoning him off the stage. You can hear a man shout “throw the bum out,” and the crowd cheering as Prince, beaten, leaves the stage.

9. She’s Always in my Hair.
Such a cold moment needs warm relief. Originally the B-side for Raspberry Beret, She’s Always in My Hair, is one of Prince's live showstoppers, right up there with How Come you Don’t Call me Anymore. This song is all excess. It’s too loud, too long, too drippy, too yellow brick road, in short the perfect album closer for a Prince record.

So there you have it. There were other considerations of course. I had to force myself to stay away from other 1984 tracks that were more associated with Purple Rain, like Erotic City. I also had to choose between the original title track and the super-rare funk version that only few people on this planet have ever heard. I have it on cassette and the quality stinks. So there you go: Around the World in a Day Redux. Is it better then Lovesexy? Maybe not but it’s better than every single record that followed that one.