Piano & A Microphone 1983 (Rhino/Warner)
There are two fault lines and one indicator in anything you read about this, the first official release from the “vaults” where Prince kept his unreleased – unseen, and often as not unheard by anyone other than whomever had been in the studio at the time he made them – recordings.
The first fault line is whether you think it’s appropriate for this release to exist. It’s an old argument but it never gets tired for me. Do those who control an estate after an artist’s death have the moral right to decide if it’s good enough to be heard first of all? We’re talking someone who died intestate for a start, let alone someone who had appointed a trusted “ear” to make any sort of decisions.
Does anyone think that Prince, a man whose first contract, signed when he was 18, insisted he would make all creative decisions on his recordings (he wrote, sang, played and produced every note on those first records), a man who more than a decade later scrawled Slave on his cheek to protest what he felt was undue demands made of his art and finances by that company, who left that company acrimoniously eventually, would want an arm of that same company making creative decisions about his work after his death?
Then there’s the second issue of original intention. If an artist didn’t want something released – and when I say didn’t want it released I don’t just mean it was done but not yet scheduled, or had been held for another time or a suite of songs in which it could sit, but had actively placed the recordings away from anyone other than himself – why do we think we have the right to demand it be done so after his death?
There’s often good reasons why something wasn’t released, even if that “good” is only obvious to the artist who made it: something missing, something imperfect, the moment having passed, personal circumstances changing the way those songs connect to her or him.
For example, the album Bruce Springsteen almost made after Born To Run, the stuff he couldn’t release while a protracted legal dispute with his former manager played out, was eventually canned, the bulk of the songs filed away as his mood and writing took a turn elsewhere into a vastly different, emotionally as well as sonically, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
I’m an avid collector or demos and alternate recordings of my favourite artists, nerdishly excited by the deconstruction of familiar songs or seeing the fragments begin to coalesce into a song that years later I would come to know. I hanker for those songs we nearly had too, and when Springsteen finally did make those lost post-BTR songs available in recent years, I was there with bells on. So I know why some of us want this stuff.
But as with the kind of private information about public figures, the point needs to be made that there’s a difference between the stuff the public is interested in and the stuff that is of public interest. The man did not want these songs released. So much so he put them away in this “vault”.
Not on the shelf under a sign saying “open here on the day of my death”. Not in a building accessed by anyone who might have curiosity. Not in the hands of Warner Music, or Rhino, or the lawyers, family members and other interested parties. He. Locked. Them. Away.
If you get past those fault lines, here is the indicator to watch for. If someone writes or tells you that these nine songs are signs of the genius that Prince (undoubtedly) was, that you can see the workings of his songwriting or studio craft, that here are the makings of the kind of record that justifies all debates, treat them as you would a promise from a former prime minister of no wrecking, no sniping, no undermining.
Recorded in 1983 while Prince was at the piano trying out ideas, noodling thoughts, and generally being a musician briefly without demands. He assays one of his great heroes, Joni Mitchell, (a brief investigation of A Case Of You that teases with the possibilities of an album of Prince doing Joni), he sketches out some ideas that would several years later become a song on Sign O’ The Times (Strange Relationship), and he makes the link to Joni very clear in the nascent – and at 87 seconds, I mean very nascent – stages of a soon-to-be-classic (Purple Rain).
Elsewhere he puts on and casts off musical characters, not to show off – who is showing off to? – but to enjoy the feel. There’s a bluesy gospel Mary Don’t You Weep and a little vamp of a jazzy blues in Wednesday that leads into the more substantial James Brown-ish (complete with grunts) funk groove of Cold Coffee And Cocaine.
This track is long at just over five minutes, though not the longest thing on the album, and its greatest claim to substance is reminding us how adept Prince was at pretty much any instrument he played. He rolls and pumps enthusiastically so that you almost forget that it’s one man at a piano and not some bustling Famous Flames or JBs at play.
Why The Butterflies and 17 Days, which close and open the album respectively, are the most substantial songs at six minutes-plus each, but that doesn’t mean the most thought through. Why The Butterflies feels like a man searching for direction, while 17 Days has a few more variations but is clearly a vibe, not a plan.
You can see why Prince hadn’t released these recordings. In fact you can see why Prince didn’t finish some of these songs, as some of them are barely started out of noodles. If some had turned up as extra tracks on a reissue of 1982-86 albums – as authorised by Prince - little bonus moments for collectors, you might have found them light amusement.
Now? It’s hard to see though how the label and the family – who ultimately are at fault - really justify putting this out as a testimony to Prince or a reward for Prince fans.