Prince Dirty Mind(Warner Brothers) Buy it from Insound
I suppose I should wait for some kind of deluxe re-issue to write about this here, one of my favorite albums ever. I was inspired, however, by Alan Shulman's words in the feature on over-rated albums (and a re-issue would doubtlessly be crammed with demos, b-sides, live tracks and the like that would negate the point). Albums, by the way, are not the completely organic perfect package for pop music statement we like to pretend they are. Like every other convention of pop music, they are technology-driven constructs. 3 1/2 minutes is the ideal longest length for a pop song because that was the capacity of one side of a 45 rpm single.
With albums, the concept of concepts didn't come into it for awhile. On a single 33 rpm LP, there was about 48 minutes (24 on each side), that one could cram onto a record with decent sound quality. For the longest time, this meant packaging the three or four songs a label was marketing on a platter completed with covers and filler. It wasn't until the mid to late '60s that artists figured out they could market themselves through "albums" as a cohesive collection and treat that as the primary medium, with singles as an afterthought.
Anyway, that is why so many works of the '60s and '70s stand as flab-free, perfect objects, because they tend to be between 35 and 48 minutes. By design, they limit the ability of the artist to fuck around in their own personal pleasure zone and give the listener the heat, the really good stuff. As rock and pop corporatized and the hottest artists became gods, the double and triple LP became common, but that at least laid down a physical gauntlet the artist had to justify. If a slice of indulgence didn't deliver the goods, it would not get spun.
It is perhaps a shame in the compact disc era (I know we're past it and everybody picks and chooses online, but the CD (-R) is still the common physical medium) that artists feel a musical package must get fairly close to 80 minutes. This is where the Shulman theory becomes relevant. He suggests that serious questions should be asked and an unforgiving editing factor should step in the moment an album goes over 40 minutes. He's right, as 40 is close to the magic number of vital, good content the average good album delivers, just as 90 is for film. This idea would save us so many extraneous skits, remixes, and gratuitious guest appearances that pop music would get better immediately just through judiciousness.
Prince, one of my favorite musicians, is an indulgent artist to say the least, and he has dabbled frequently in the long album murky waters. He did it brilliantly on double albums like 1999 and Sign O' The Times. When he finally got his melodramatic liberation from label obligation in the '90s, however, he completely abused his freedom with multidisc misfires like Emancipation and Crystal Ball.
Mind you, both releases have, within them, an enviable quantity of fine material. There is, in fact, enough within either of these releases to make a stirring 40 minute playlist, or one could say the album he should have released. B-sides and boxed sets are great for collectors, but making 3 or 4 disc initial releases overwhelms the good moments with at best respectful yawns. Epic releases without a need to be epic needlessly deteriorate the passion and interest of even the most forgiving and dilligent music lover.
Sign O' The Times happens to be my favorite Prince album, and not coincidentally one of my favorites ever. It is one of the rare longies that justifies its length with both the abundance of wonderful songwriting and the breadth of musical style. Still, it seems like he got the wrong idea for it. Where Sign O' The Times was a great double along the lines of Stevie Wonder''s Songs in the Key of Life that captured a soul legend jumping into whatever pool he feels like at his indefatiguable peak, it wasn't a great rubrik to expand upon in later, less inspired years.
This is where we finally get to the disc this review is ostensibly about. Prince has found a modicum of AOR renewed relevance in semi-focused single disc releases like Musicology, 3121, and Planet Earth. His recent triple pack, meanwhile, seems to be alternately laughed at, lamented, or ignored. The single discs were a good idea, but still suffered from the freedom and bloat of the CD format. If Prince really wants to matter again, I would suggest he spend a year making something as concise and irresistible as Dirty Mind.
Dirty Mind, at the dawn of the '80s, was the album that, at least for the geeks, established Prince as more than a ridiculously talented R&B prodigy and announced him as an iconic star for the decade (everybody else became aware with the double punch of 1999 and Purple Rain). Dirty Mind, though it doesn't boast those TV commercial compilation pop hits, has not died and has in fact grown stronger in stature in that fluid pop canon we all float in.
Many music critics before me have jizzed over its revolutionary alchemy of rock, new wave, funk, disco, futurisim, soul and whatever sonic designation you want to latch onto, so I'll try to restrain myself. That is, in fact, why this album stands up so well, its ability to restrain itself and earn those hosannas simultaneously.
The title track laid the minimal (but unconceived of at the time) foundation that would be exploited by such iconic '80s hits as Van Halen's Jump and Springsteen's Born in the USA, with an insidiously catchy synth riff pushing an inspired song endlessly forward. Of course, Prince's prototype was much more sticky and sexual. When You Were Mine has been covered a few times because it is one of the best pop songs in the book. Indie rockers took the depressing lyrics and made it into a dirge, missing the point entirely. Only Cyndi Lauper realized that doing such a sad song as a bouncy dance tune made the melancoly so much stronger. There is, ironically, a greater honesty in reflecting self-justification by doing such a self-lacerating call to an ex-lover in an upbeat fashion.
Do It All Night and Sister manage to find a level of ecstatic joy and intensity that mere rock referents could not possibly muster (and the latter is all about incest). Prince brought the possibilities of funk to bottle and shake up sexiness to rock and pop. Gotta Broken Heart Again is a reminder that Prince could compete with the best of the pre-disco soul men, showing a fine voice, syrupy composition, and enough mundane/profound everyday detail to make a Teddy P redundant.
Uptown is perhaps the best and most ecstatic expression of post-hippy, new wave youth individualism. There was a sneaky comformity to that '60s movement (which Prince would one-up on Around the World in a Day). On Uptown, Prince would decimate the residual hierarchical Woodstock scene with simple lines delivered with utmost confidence.
"Our clothes, our hair/We don't care/It's all about being there"
This is the encompassing second tier city counterpoint to the Studio 54 snobbery that pissed off Chic so much. Head is rather over-written-about, but just think of the impact of such a pro-oral-sex pop jam in the late '70s. The whole thing wraps itself up in a tight little bow with Party Up. Given the audio overload that has preceded it, it becomes more than a vacant encouragement to hedonism, and winds up culminating a call to disregard musical (and, more explicitly, carnal) prejudice from any angle.
The point is that this masterpiece clocks in well under 40 minutes. Both modern albums and Prince himself could learn a lesson from it.20 May, 2009 - 15:03 — George Booker