After Prince conquered the world on his live tour of the Sign O' the Times tour in 1988, he reigned over pop as a freakishly talented unicorn even though he turned in subpar material. When I first wrote about him for the Boston Phoenix, my challenge included conveying the immense regard critics held for him while holding his writing accountable. My colleague Jimmy Guterman (1963-2016) contributed a lot to my thinking on all things purple.
EVEN THOUGH HE'S NOT exactly ego-free, Prince has never been one of those loner pop stars who sing about how isolating fame can be. Throughout his decade-long orgy of insistent black pop music-making, while stealing shamelessly from the heroes he grew up listening to in the '70s (George Clinton, Sly Stone, and, of course, James Brown), Prince has alternated between playing the self-sufficient studio monomaniac and beckoning like the barker to his own three-ring circus on tour.
He made his masterpiece, Sign o' The Times (1988), by himself, with a token appearance by Scottish pop nymph Sheena Easton on "U Got the Look." But the concert film of the same title found him working off Sheila E's she-man drumming, bumping, and grinding with his back-up singers, and taking his "Little Red Corvette" for a spin. He's the star of his own show, but he clearly gets off on musical interplay more than his '80s counterparts Michael Jackson and Madonna. Of course, he loves to get that shy smirk on his face and blow his players off on their own instruments (drums, piano, guitar), just to live up to his Mozartian image. And in his first film, Purple Rain (1984), he made a puppet dance into a mirror as a way of coping with the way his multi-racial, cross-sexual bandmates lost patience with his perfectionism.
He cruises an endless array of pop textures that levitate natty lyrical non-sequiturs whose sole purpose is to extend the grooves.
So disciples of His Purpleness won't be surprised to find that the double-disc soundtrack to Prince's up-coming film, Graffiti Bridge, is a collaboration between his usual house players (himself, himself, and himself) and his friends Morris Day and the Time, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, and his backup singer, Tevin Campbell. Over the course of four album sides (68 minutes on a single CD) this strategy testifies to Prince's good judgment about how to stretch his flaky-eccentric ideas across a broad canvas. Now if he'd just hire a lyricist...
Lands somewhere between Kacey Musgraves's Golden Hour and Yola's Walk Through Fire
Another June birthday: Brian Wilson turns 80 on the 20th. Ben Greenman's captures his dreamy voice, and his dream-chasing thoughts. Read before rewatching Love and Mercy, the most poetic of biopics: Paul Dano, John Cusack, and Elizabeth Banks all perform alongside the songs going in your head. On his latest release, At My Piano, Wilson goes through them all again at the keyboard in his version of those understated Bill Evans Conversations records. "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" acquires as much solace and comfort as "Warmth of the Sun," written the day after JFK was killed in 1963.