If there was a pop music equivalent of David Lodge’s Humiliation then I could kick it off with the admission that I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Prince album all the way through before. Of course, I’m familiar with his hit singles, and indeed it strikes me that it’s a crying shame that his record labels haven’t been able to band together to produce a definitive ‘best of’ album because, even without being familiar with the album tracks, it would be quite some collection. In the early 1990s though, growing up reading a music press that referred to him as ‘the purple pervert from Minneapolis’ or ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Good,’ he was a bit of a joke. An impression perhaps reinforced by the fact that, around the time he released this album, his biggest cheerleader at school was the kid who sat a couple of desks down from me in science classes who thought that the summit of comedy was scrawling penises on other peoples’ textbooks.
The first Prince song I remember was Sign o’ the Times, which was on a recording I had made of the top 40 with the ‘ghetto-blaster’ (remember when that was the term of art for, um, a tape recorder) I had been given for my ninth birthday. And as a small child growing up in a world very different from the urban America that produced Prince – I could see sheep and cows from my bedroom window – it seemed to describe a world both faintly threatening and intriguing. I can’t remember now if I understood at that age what the ‘big disease with a little name’ was, though I think it is safe to say that the line “In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time, now he’s doing horse. It’s June” would have meant nothing to me. Although isn’t that part of the fascination of pop music, or at least pop lyrics, to a small child: these coded glimpses it offers into the mysterious adult world.
But anyway, back to the record itself. This album kicks off with My Name is Prince, in which he repeatedly declares “My name is Prince. And I am funky”. Which, to be fair, is to the point. Because this is nothing if not a funk record. If he’d sung ‘My name is Prince: And I am jazz-influenced death metal‘ then he could be accused of misleading the listener. Later, he adds that “on the first day, God made the sea. And on the seventh, he made me.” Proof, if nothing else that he was not a man who could be accused of humblebragging. It does sound a little of-its-time now. Something about the sound of scratched vinyl and the synth effects can’t help but remind me of the sort of stuff that filled the charts in my early teenage years.
From there, it’s on to Sexy MF which I don’t think I’ve ever heard in its unbowdlerised form before. When it was on endless rotation on Atlantic 252 at the time of its release, The F of the song’s title was left unvoiced. As with the album’s opener, it is proof that he (or his record label) knew how to pick singles. It is nothing if not an earworm, even if, on reflection, it does sound like a slightly inferior re-working of his 1986 hit, Kiss.
Prince was nothing if not musically eclectic, on this album as much as anywhere, and as well as the very James Brown-influenced funk of, especially, the opening track, there’s the pop-rock of Morning Papers, an experiment in electronic-tinged reggae with Blue Light which works an awful lot better than many pop artists who decide to dabble in reggae mid-career (Snoop Dogg, I’m looking at you) and Three Chains O’Gold reminded me more than a little of Queen – all the more impressive for the fact that Prince is able to channel both the guitar pyrotechnics of Brian May and the sheer showmanship of Freddie Mercury.
Emily at Mookbarks had suggested that this was an album very much influenced by Prince’s Christianity. It might be that I have a tin ear for these things, but I have to admit that I didn’t really pick up on that at all. In fact, having just finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones, I could equally easily have been persuaded that Seven was actually a song about that world’s fictional religion with its septons and seven aspects of god. If this was a concept album, then the concept itself rather passed me by.
And in the end, I wasn’t really won over by this record. Perhaps it wasn’t the place to start. The Guardian’s ranking of all 37?! of his albums suggests that it was not one of his best. Maybe my introduction to Prince should have been through Purple Rain, Controversy or Sign o’ the Times. I could admire the musicianship, and the groove on tracks like The Max, but for me it seems a bit of a triumph of musicianship and production over actual song-writing. The singles aside, the songs just didn’t grab me. It’s not as if Prince couldn’t write pop songs – but there’s nothing on this album to sit alongside Raspberry Beret, Kiss, Purple Rain, or even, whisper it, Manic Monday. And much of it melted into a kind of sameyness to the point where I can’t quite distinguish Melt with Me from The Continental from The Sacrifice of Victor.
The other week, I was listening to Michael Hann, or perhaps it was Pete Paphides, on Big Mouth, reviewing the new Anonhi album, and he remarked that, in his time as editor of the Guardian music pages, he had heard hundreds of records that were sonically interesting, had good song-writing and highly accomplished musicianship but, which he’d never listen to again once he’d finished writing the inevitable four-star review. And, for me, this was one of those records.
Highlights: Seven, Sexy MF, Morning Papers.