Back in the mid-1990s, Prince and Warner Brothers did not split amicably. Not only did the superstar write the word SLAVE on his face, he also changed his name to an unpronounceable logo that was quickly translated into English as “The Artist Formerly Known As…” Unhappy with faltering sales in the new decade, he tried to release a quick slew of albums in order to get out of his contract, but Warner insisted on waiting the industry-standard two years between major releases. It must have felt like a demotion after Prince more or less owned the 1980s, a decade when even a flop like Under the Cherry Moon could spin off a hit album like Parade. Despite his complaints, however, Prince never regained his former popularity following his departure from Warner; as he struggled to go his own way and keep up with trends he was no longer setting, his independent output quickly grew prodigious and preeningly self-indulgent, ranging from the triple-disc Emancipation in 1996 to the soggy The Rainbow Children in 2001 to the one-two punch of MPLSound and LotusFlow3r in 2009.
What’s most surprising about Prince re-signing (or resigning?) with Warner Brothers nearly twenty years later is just how much sense it makes for both parties. The label has welcomed one of its signature stars back to the fold, who brings his never-reissued/never-remastered back catalog with him. They’ve already teased a new edition of Purple Rain—the dream we all dream of—and Prince gets some major-label backing at a time when he seems creatively rejuvenated and newly focused. A string of startlingly solid singles led to Art Official Age, which despite its ludicrous title, is the most engaged Prince has sounded in a long while. In particular, “Breakfast Can Wait” is an AM lovemaking jam that schools R. Kelly with its old-school slink and Prince in supreme pillowtalk mode (“Come here baby, let me put you on my plate”).
Musically, Art Official Age is all over the map—gloriously so, in fact—as though Prince is trying to cram a triple album into a single disc. Opener “Art Official Cage” cribs directly from Daft Punk’s more arena-ready moments, building a post-disco banger on some Nile Rodgers-style rhythm guitar. It sounds perhaps too familiar, but the song mimics its source with aplomb and what sounds like Princely arrogance. Cockiness has always looked better on Prince than assless chaps or satin frocks, and the song has a feisty energy that even a new jack swing rap can’t derail. Some of the best songs here are slow jams, like the wishful “This Could Be Us” and “Breakdown”, which sounds like one of the most personally revealing tunes Prince has ever recorded: “Waking up in places that you would never believe,” he sings with what sounds like deep regret. “Give me back the time, you can keep the memories.” As the strings lift the song out of the depths and laserbeams fire at the edges of the music, Prince launches into some vocal contortions that prove his voice has lost none of its wild mutability over the years. It’s the rare moment of true gravity on an album that sounds like Prince actually had a lot of fun making.
There’s something reassuring about such good spirits coming from him, as it recalls a much younger Prince whose mischievous smile and eye rolls conveyed a self-possession and self-awareness. On the other hand, the few times he nods to an overarching funk/sci-fi mythology—something about being cryogenically frozen for 50 years and waking up in a society with no first-person pronouns—Prince comes across as a grouchy old guy. “Twenty-four karat hashtag, put your phone in your bag,” he raps on “The Gold Standard”, sounding too much like a man in his mid-50s.
Art Official Age is not a return to form by any means, but a modestly exciting Prince album. That’s certainly more than we could expect in 2014, and it’s certainly more than we get out of PlectrumElectrum. Prince recorded the album with his all-female backing band 3rdEyeGirl, which includes drummer Hannah Ford Welton, guitarist Donna Grantis, and bassist Ida Nielsen. All have backgrounds and even degrees in rock and jazz, so it’s obvious they have immense chops. The rhythm section lock down the grooves on the punk-/surf-rock “Marz” and the strutting “Stopthistrain”, and Grantis (formerly a member of the New Power Generation) riffs and solos on “Anotherlove” with Princely abandon.
What they don’t have is much of a personality. Recorded live in the studio using analog equipment, the album is nevertheless too proficient, too slick, and too professional to come across as much more than anonymous. They show little of the kinky inventiveness of the Revolution or the innate versatility of the New Power Generation; instead, Plectrum is crammed with predictable rap-rock riffs, vague alt-rock menance, and bloozy showboating. Especially blasting from Paisley Park, this is a perversely unimaginative and restrictive idea of rock‘n’roll, with none of the musical freedom that Prince has traditionally shown. One of the great pop synthesists, he has blended so many different styles and sounds so fluidly that his best music sounded positively utopian: a world without charts or genres, release schedules, or label contracts.
Prince and 3rdEyeGirl have good intentions, of course, and at times the album sounds like a rebuttal to the pesky rock-is-dead palaver that so many of the form’s aging practitioners have memorized. “A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band o’ boys,” Prince asserts on “Fixurlifeup”. But he’s decrying prefab pop groups while backed by a prefab pop group, preaching female empowerment while playing up the novelty of an all-female band. Both of these albums sound slightly out of time, but at least Art Official Age, despite its flaws, has the bravado to imagine how the pop music of the future might function. By contrast, Plectrum merely duplicates the sounds and politics of rock ‘n’ roll’s stodgy past.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/YVyvLe