“Welcome home, class,” he says. Both of Prince’s new albums, ART OFFICIAL AGE and PLECTRUMELECTRUM, are catchy, ambitious, and sensual works of long-earned musical expertise at every turn. In short, they sound like Prince albums, and in many ways, that’s already good enough.
Prince, now 56, is pop’s most musically versatile star pound-for-pound, what with his imagination on guitar and his determination for bringing his biggest ideas to life. ART OFFICIAL AGE and PLECTRUMELECTRUM are loaded with his usual sounds, as well as the difficult-to-define energies that have distinguished his music for the past 35 years, whether he’s been backed by the Revolution, the New Power Generation, or 3rdEyeGirl, the all-female trio — composed of Louisville drummer Hannah “Ford” Welton, Toronto guitarist Donna Grantis, and Danish bassist Ida Nielsen, all of whom old enough to be his daughters — who not only accompany him on PLECTRUMELECTRUM but also appear on the cover without him.
Of the two albums, which both mark Prince’s return to Warner Bros. following the early ’90s spat that resulted in his writing “slave” on his face in protest to his contract, ART OFFICIAL AGE sounds more like a hit Prince album due to its modern production. There is, after all, one eensy-but-unmistakable EDM drop on “Art Official Cage”. PLECTRUMELECTRUM, meanwhile, is more sprawling, alternately aiming for thunderous riffs (check the five-minute instrumental title track, which has a whole lotta Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” in it, as well as the vaguely grungy “FIXURLIFEUP”) and relatively tame pop led by 3rdEyeGirl. There’s no reason one of these albums would inevitably wind up better than the other, because for every sublime vocal hook in his career, there’s been a rip-roaring guitar solo or tasteful arrangement he should be equally proud of. Ultimately, though, ART OFFICIAL AGE is the stronger and more assured listen because it’s essentially all Prince. PLECTRUMELECTRUM, on the other hand, must depend on a separate entity (3rdEyeGirl) to be just as mystifying and freaky as he is.
PLECTRUMELECTRUM‘s longer rock jams give the album its true shape, and 3rdEyeGirl certainly help in this regard (“A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band of boys,” sings Prince). On the other hand, the PLECTRUMELECTRUM songs sung by the Girls, such as the Runaways hard rock of “AINTTURNINROUND”, the loungey-but-building “WHITE CAPS”, and the quickly dissolving reggae rhythms of “STOPTHISTRAIN”, are modest, although they can be hooky, too, as with “BOYTROUBLE”. But while PLECTRUMELECTRUM is testimony to Prince’s ability to makes albums, it doesn’t have as many obvious peaks, a shortcoming that results in a slight fading of the sense that this is, technically, a Prince album.
ART OFFICIAL AGE, with its strange concept (Prince wakes up 45 years in the future, where the words “me” and “mine” no longer exist), is literally and figuratively a different story. Prince’s propulsive electropop collaboration with Zooey Deschanel, “FALLINLOVE2NITE”, released after he appeared as a messianic figure on New Girl earlier this year, isn’t here, but the album still has moments that are just as effective. “Breakdown” is easily the highlight between the two albums, a ballad that starts positively glacial and builds a chorus that fulfills the drama inherent to the word “breakdown.” “U Know” features a slippery form of kinda-rapping, though Prince transitions to a falsetto before the song can become, strictly speaking, hip-hop. Thanks to those detours, it ends up as the umpteenth example of how typical genre boundaries don’t apply to him. Elsewhere, “This Could Be Us” is a serene, gooey R&B song inspired by the Purple Rain Internet meme in which Prince and Apollonia are depicted as an ideal couple (#ThisCouldBeUsButYouPlayin). “Breakfast Can Wait”, the single with the Dave Chapelle cover art, succeeds on charm alone, a gentle ode to domestic bliss. It’s strange to think Prince hasn’t had a hit in this century, but regardless of his place in today’s pop market, these songs all stand among the most exciting of the latter-day period he’s currently in.
Those successes fuel the listener’s hope for a Prince album that feels as revolutionary as his ’80s masterworks. Neither Art Official Age nor PLECTRUMELECTRUM aims to be a legendary Prince record, but both hit their marks anyway. The chart success of both (and especially that of ART OFFICIAL AGE) should rejuvenate him, which very well may breed the confidence he needs if he wants to strive for an even more emphatic return.
ART OFFICIAL AGE Essential Tracks: “Breakdown”, “U Know”, and “This Could Be Us”
PLECTRUMELECTRUM Essential Tracks: “ANOTHERLOVE”, “TICTACTOE”