Updated by JB on November 19, 2014
Art Official Age – 6.5/10
Plectrum Electrum – 6/10
Where have you gone Dorothy Parker?
Art Official Age
Release date: September 30, 2014
In 1990, at the remarkable young age of 31, Prince received a Lifetime Achievement Award (yes, lifetime, age 31) at the American Music Awards. This wasn’t a posthumous award. He was merely 33% of the way into his career. His brief speech ended with: “Another great source of inspiration has been the notion that creating new music is like meeting a new friend and with that in mind I tend to try and create something I’ve never seen before. I guess I like surprises.”
Well for over fifteen years now, those surprises and new friends have been few and far between. Art Official Age, while being bubbly, thumping and energizing at times – ultimately falls short of our high expectations on disc. Expectations that reached a pinnacle in 1987 and hit a low point during the decade following the real 1999. The new millennium has not been kind to Prince’s studio recordings. Onstage, he’s Elvis, Hendrix and James Brown. Peerless. On record, he now stumbles.
Art Official Age displays moments (mere flashes) of something great (‘Clouds’, ‘Art Official Cage’, ‘Time’) but nothing like the Prince that we hoped he would become during his deep middle-age years. I no longer need Prince in his Camille voice. That was then, this is 2014. In his best years he could mix a Beatles-esque melody with an R&B jam as easily as we brush our teeth. Try out ‘Paisley Park’ from 1985 and ‘Anotherloverholenyohead’ from 1986. Those obscure, sublime tracks were only eleven months apart and dramatically different. With visible ease he mastered different styles with jaw-dropping perfection. His eclectic quality was ions ahead of everyone. Ahead of Michael Jackson. Ahead of Madonna and her plethora of hot producers. Ahead of anyone black or white. Basking in the pre-mp3, pre-hip hop age we awaited Prince’s new material like no other.
But his material since 1998, while remaining eclectic, are mostly dysfunctional light jams – such as those on Art Official Age. There are no stream of gems with the perfect bridge and chorus. No more waiting to push ‘repeat’ on the remote to play the same track again. Have we exhausted the boundaries that Prince once broke through? Has he resolved himself to simply being the greatest live performer, perhaps ever? We’d walk on nails to see him perform live. We’d walk on those same nails to see him release the double album of pop, rock and R&B tracks that he’s so capable of. 27 years is long enough. Where have you gone Dorothy Parker?
The joint release with Art Official Age is the full band release from 3rdEyeGirl – featuring Prince on lead vocals for the large majority of the album. Opening up strongly with the one-two power rock punch of ‘Wow’ and the strangely-titled (which becomes an annoying, unnecessary spelling theme over the album) ‘PretzelBodyLogic’, the album disintegrates quickly into a series of light, direction-less jams. It’s hindered with all-too-often meaningless vocals and drum breaks at inopportune times (the title track). It’s almost as if it’s over-compensating to feature Hannah Ford for the mere sake of showcasing Hannah Ford. A stunning drummer yes, but these are inferior tracks for nearly two-thirds of the album. The output doesn’t match the talent in the room. Not by a long shot. Tracks like ‘Ainturninround’, ‘Funknroll’ and ‘Marz’ are some of the worst (and most frustrating, and irritating) in the enormous Prince catalog.
Hidden halfway through the album is the throwback, lighthearted Prince gem, ‘TicTacToe’. While not being the strongest track on a rather aggressive rock record, it features the type of pop hook that separated Prince from the pack during his best years. It’s a midtempo, head-bobbing sing-along that will find zero air time on radio, but it’s the sole reminder that Prince can still be a pop aficionado when he wants to be. However, for the majority of PlectrumElectrum he’s just trying too hard to be more than we need him to be right now.
Separating from the past and continually evolving is admirable; but being great at it (like he has in the past) is another. When Prince jumped genres on an annual basis from 1982 through 1987 he mastered it. He was simply always at his best when he stripped things down and slowed it down (‘Kiss’, ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Adore’, ‘Sign o The Times’). Those tracks were remarkably sparse and were perfect because your imagination filled in the blank spaces. You could feel the funk and the tension during the silence between his notes. He’s never been good at a ‘big’ sound. In Prince’s world, less has always been better. ‘Prince’ was always better than ‘Prince and the Revolution’. In 2014, the instrument count may again be small but the sound is too big and our imagination between notes is nowhere to be found or needed.