Spark of Potential

Prince Returns From the Wilderness and, Thankfully, Is as Restless as Ever

PlectrumElectrum and Art Official Age show Prince’s willingness to shape his material into coherent and compelling albums that’s been absent for a while. He's not coasting anymore.

In most respects, Prince and The Simpsons don’t have much in common. One’s a self-created, sui generis musical force from the Twin Cities, the other’s a brainchild of cartoonist Matt Groening that’s been shepherded and modified by many other creators over the years.

Yet the parallels in their history are revealing. Consider: Both became cultural forces via remarkable, sustained runs of genius. For Prince it was the stretch of albums from his 1978 debut For You through the unpronounceable glyph album in 1992 (but especially the stretch between Dirty Mind and Sign O’ The Times). For The Simpsons it was Seasons 1 through 10 (but especially Seasons 3 through 8).

Each attracted the ire of political figures, Prince’s “Darling Nikki” inspiring Tipper Gore to help found the Parents Music Resource Center and The Simpsons inspiring an ill-considered 1992 insult from George H.W. Bush (that prompted a clever response). Both have since become institutions, Prince playing the Super Bowl’s halftime show in 2007, The Simpsons appearing on U.S. postage stamps in 2009. Respectability awaits even iconoclasts if they stick around long enough.

Their paths came this close to crossing, too: Former showrunner Bill Oakley topped a 2012 list of 10 best unproduced episodes with “Prince Comes to Springfield,” written by Conan O’Brien. Asked to elaborate, he described it as a “complete script written by Conan. Prince crapped out because he wanted to do a script written by a friend of his.” As it stands, Prince’s contact with Springfield remains limited to a handful of wordless gags, including a “Treehouse of Horror” episode in which he dies at Homer’s hands.

Above all, The Simpsons and Prince enjoy popularity rooted in what they’ve done than rather than what they’re doing, but unlike most legacy acts they’ve kept the spark of potential: Just as The Simpsons can still sometimes rally for an inspired half-hour like last season’s Lego-inspired “Brick Like Me,” it’s best never to count Prince out, no matter how many disappointments the years since “7” have brought.

It’s easy to cobble a playlist together of the best moments from Prince’s wilderness years (which have now stretched into wilderness decades), tracks that capture the vitality of old. Doing so just means skipping past many songs and sometimes whole albums. (The turn-of-the-century stretch that yielded The Rainbow Children and N.E.W.S. is particularly easy to ignore.)

For every “Black Sweat” there are many more “Muse 2 the Pharaoh”s. It’s also easy to declare every new album Prince’s best in years because who remembers the last one? That’s true now more than ever given that Prince’s last album, 2010’s 20Ten, never even received an official release in the United States. Its European release came as an attachment to various print publications, including the British tabloids The Daily Mail and The Daily Record. An odd confluence of industry-music woes and declining public interest in Prince’s new material turned an album by the man behind Purple Rain into the equivalent of an AOL start-up disc. It was the U2/iTunes team-up years before it happened, only far sadder.

Now Prince is back with not one but two new albums, the solo-billed Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum, the latter a collaboration with 3rdEyeGirl, the all-female trio Prince debuted on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last year and with whom he toured the U.K. to much acclaim earlier in 2014. The 56-year-old artist has passed the point in his career when most start coasting. While he’s done his share of that in the past, both PlectrumElectrum and Art Official Age show a commitment, engagement, and willingness to shape his material into coherent albums that’s been absent for a while.

Of the two, PlectrumElectrum is the least expected, a recorded-live-in-the-studio, honest-to-goodness band effort that puts Prince alongside bassist Ida Nielsen (formerly of New Power Generation), drummer Hannah Ford Welton, and guitarist Donna Grantis to play a muscular, distinctly Prince-like hybrid of rock and R&B.

The title of its final track doubles as a mission statement: “FunkNRoll.” (A different version of the same song appears on Art Official Age.) Prince sounds delighted to be working with a band that can keep up with him, but PlectrumElectrum sometimes sacrifices innovation for virtuosity. The title track, for instance, sounds like an attempt to work through infinite variations on the central riff of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.”

When Prince supplies top-shelf songs like the album-opening “Wow” and the hooky “FixUrLife,” however, the album becomes about more than just finding a groove and the pretty ballad “Whitecaps,” with Ford on lead vocals, suggests there’s much for 3rdEyeGirl to explore in the future. Prince has a habit of shedding protégés almost as quickly as he picks them up. These he might want to hold onto.

Then again, he does all right on his own Art Official Age. It’s loosely a concept album set 45 years in the future in which a reawakened Prince receives new age-y advice from an English-accented female guide, a plot point introduced on the second track, “Clouds.” The premise comes and goes, however, and even the rest of “Clouds” focuses more on sensuality than sci-fi.

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Really, Art Official Age is an attempt to reconcile Prince’s past with the future. From the sinuous bass line that opens the song to the speeded-up vocals that close it out, “Breakfast Can Wait” wouldn’t feel out of place on his 1987 masterpiece Sign O’ The Times. It’s also loose, funky, and inviting, sounding less like an act of self-homage than an artist knowing what he does well. Prince gets points, too, for putting it out as a single with cover art that nods to the Chappelle’s Show sketch that presumably inspired it.

Speaking of unexpected sources of inspiration, “This Could Be Us” gives Art Official Age one of its most surprising moments with these opening lines: “This could be us / but U B playin’.” Prince told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the track came from encountering an image of himself and Purple Rain co-star Apollonia joined to the Twitter hashtag #ThisCouldBeUsButYouPlaying. (This, of course, raises the question of what an all hashtag-inspired Prince album might look like, one with tracks like “#ThanksObama,” and “iPhone6.”) It might sound like a novelty if it weren’t joined to a slow-burning cry for attention set against a spare backing track that mixes subtle synths with bracing guitar interjections.

Neither Art Official Age nor PlectrumElectrum rank among Prince’s all-time best, but they’re far too compelling to ignore. Given their predecessors, it may not mean that much to call them his best work in years, but both set a high bar for any future Prince album wanting to claim that title and make the prospect of more Prince albums sound inviting again. Nobody said respectability had to sound boring.