Prince’s latest confounding move is the simultaneous arrival of two albums: Art Official Age, a studio production and PlectrumElectrum, on which he’s backed by the three-woman rock trio he has been touring with, 3rdEyeGirl.
The pair of albums represents two sides of Prince: the futuristic studio whiz and the omnivorous music historian. Art Official Age playfully acknowledges the gleaming artificiality of current studio sounds, while PlectrumElectrum flaunts the real-time muscle of vintage power-trio rock. And like Prince’s overwhelming output since he started his own NPG label in the mid-1990s and began releasing music whenever he wanted — including triple and quadruple albums — both albums are hit and miss, the work of a great musician whose songwriting doesn’t always live up to his skills.
The one song that appears on both albums, an invitation to party called Funknroll, shows how disparate Prince’s strategies can be. Starting from the same intro, a big riff with audience noise simulating an arena stomp, 3rdEyeGirl bears down on the electric bass while Art Official Age suddenly thins itself down to scattered blips and synthetic handclaps.
Art Official Age comes across as a concept album diverted by second thoughts. The immediate agenda of its opener, Art Official Cage, is the way it riffles through recent electronic dance music sounds, like the pealing piano chords of trance, a four-on-the-floor drumbeat, an air horn hoot, a wobbly synthesizer bass and, most amusingly, the kind of quick-scrubbed rhythm guitar funk that Daft Punk learned from Prince and Chic.
Amid that technical display, Prince sings about “a place in heaven far off in the future.” Soon, spoken-word interludes have him waking up from suspended animation 45 years from now, in a new culture where “there are no such words as me or mine.” A few songs continue the concept: Way Back Home and affirmation III, plush ballads with a backing chorus that could come out of a Philip Glass opera.
Most of Art Official Age sticks to Prince staples: slow-motion seduction and dance grooves, though this time he makes a point of praising long-term romance. The standout song is Breakfast Can Wait, a teasing, single-entendre song about early-morning options.
Elsewhere, Prince reaffirms his expertise at ultraslow tempos. In Breakdown, he brings his falsetto and sparse, hovering piano chords to lyrics repenting too many drunken parties: “Give me back the time, you can keep the memories,” he sighs. Clouds, a ballad with a springy funk backbeat and two basses playing in tandem, mingles advice on flirtation with philosophising about reality and performance.
This Could Be Us bemoans a woman’s hesitancy to make a long-term commitment, as whooshing synthesizers and percussion mimic heavy breathing. Time pulls together a lurching beat, a polytonal pileup of harmonies and a growled vocal. And in U Know, which gets part of its rhythm from a woman saying “uh-huh uh-huh,” a fast-talking Prince interweaves thoughts of pleasure and the music business.
Breakdown has a melody that lingers. Prince placed himself in a different format with 3rdEyeGirl: analog, live-in-the-studio performance.
The self-imposed limitations removed opportunities to tinker; they gave Prince a chance to reconstruct the basics of guitar, bass and drums; the songs are tauter, more focussed.
They also recognise a feminine presence and perspective; Fixurlifeup contends, “A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band o’ boys.” The band summons the sinewy tension and release of Jimi Hendrix in Wow, the roar of Led Zeppelin or Crazy Horse in Fixurlifeup, the spaces and pounces of the Police in Anotherlove and the blare of punk in the brief but pointed Marz. A funk workout, Boytrouble, features guest rappers, and there’s also a promising ballad, Whitecaps; unfortunately, Prince handed lead vocals over to 3rdEyeGirl.
What constrains PlectrumElectrum is its rigorous, deliberately retro back-to-basics mandate. Prince at his best doesn’t just collect and recreate genres; he smashes them together. If Prince can meld the concision of PlectrumElectrum with the sonic imagination of Art Official Age — past plus future — the possibilities are wide open.