Words by: Gerrod Harris
Release Date: September 30, 2014, via NPG Records
We are all thinking it, “Really? Two records in one day?” It’s a valid thought as the last time a release of two separate albums on the same day (rather than the accepted format of a double album) was successful was 1991’s Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 by Guns N’Roses. But hey, it’s Prince, and if anyone can pull it off, it is certainly him. Art Official Age is a solo album from the icon, whereas PlectrumElectrum is a collaboration with him and the rock group, 3rdEyeGirl. Both are equally important additions to modern music, yet both are so very different in every sense of the word.
The first album, Art Official Age, like almost all of his previous albums, Prince is, for the most part, the only songwriter, musician, and producer. It’s hard to say if even the female sounding backup vocals aren’t his own as he uses technology to manipulate the tone and texture of his already feminine falsetto. This is especially apparent on the first track, “Art Official Cage”. The song is almost disco, but the edgy guitar pulls it in another direction, while electronic pop elements are used throughout, even using techniques commonly found in dubstep to alter his voice, and add a feeling of weightlessness due to the change of speed. The song, like much the rest of this album, showcases a brilliant combination of live instruments, and electronic elements.
I don’t get the feeling that this is a concept album, but there seems to be a reoccurring idea where a woman with a British accent is talking to a “Mr. Nelson”, as he undergoes some sort of operation. The messages go from warning him of how the recovery will take a while and eventually leads to him communicating “telepathically” in the final song “Affirmation 3”. I’m not all that sure as to what Prince was trying to achieve with this, but its re-occurrence throughout the album suggests there is more than meets the ear.
On the surface many of these songs, seem more pop than anything else, and they are. That doesn’t stop Prince from throwing in a quick, amazing guitar lick here and there. The instrumental parts are very well done, such as the guitar parts on “Clouds” and the Motown inspired bass part on “Breakfast Can Wait”. Even the electronic tracks and effects are being used in ways that aren’t conventional for most pop music. It’s all very fresh, considering the pop genre has been done to death, especially in the last 14 years or so; Prince delivers Art Official Age as a pop album with many deeper layers through his use of electronic and instrumental elements, creating a truly unique musical experience. His voice, as always, is one of the best in the industry, with its vast range and different textures, he creates many excellent harmonies, and the lyrics are just as smooth and sexually charged as you could expect from someone who once went by the name, The Love Symbol.
The second album, PlectrumElectrum sees a perfect collaboration between Prince and 3rdEyeGirl. This album strays from his traditional pop formula and takes on a fusion of rock and funk. 3rdEyeGirl is made up of guitarists Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Nielsen, and drummer Hannah Ford, each all very talented musician; they have to be to keep up with Prince and his desire to improvise each night on stage. Grantis said in a recent interview that “A big part of playing with Prince is to know all his material. He likes to switch it up. He might go apart from the set list we have. We have to pay attention. If he wants to stop, he might start something else. He’s a great arranger, master of arranging songs on the spot.”
Unlike Art Official Age, PlectrumElectrum is purely four excellent musicians whose collaboration feels quite organic and is reflected in their music. There is no electronic components to it, just some funky, but heavy drums, two guitars which complimenting each other, groovy bass, and smooth vocals. You can hear it in the first track, “Wow”, the chorus line “You can call it the unexpected… you can call it wow”. That’s a good word to describe this album: wow. I was thoroughly impressed with this album. The title track, “PlectrumElectrum”, is all instrumental, and is greatly influenced by 1960’s psychedelic guitar music, more specifically, Jimi Hendrix. The entire album is reminiscent of the classic vibe Hendrix brought to his music, but with a modern spin to it. Prince takes a break for the main vocals on the songs “Boytrouble”, Stopthistrain” and “Tictactoe”, giving his backing band a chance to move more into the spotlight.
The underlying funkiness really adds flavour and character to the music; the album is fun, and groovy, while rocking. From the opening track, “Wow” to the final song, “Funknroll”, the album maintains heights without any dips. “Funknroll” appeared on both albums. The near completely electronic track on Art Official Age is much more open when played with live instruments on PlectrumElectrum. The band covers many styles while remaining true to their funky-rock style they demonstrate on both the opener and title track; “Boytrouble” seems to take from hip-hop, while “Whitecaps” is a complete rocker, and “Anotherlove” is soulfully excellent. I found it impossible to pick a song or two which stand out from the rest. It’s all that good, all killer, with no filler. I would even go as far to say PlectrumElectrum has become a new favorite of mine.
Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum both showcase the signature Prince style we all know and love, reaching back for influences in r&b, rock, and funk all the while stretching forward the limitations of each of these styles. Art Official Age feels like 1980’s Prince, pumped full of modern steroids, whereas, PlectrumElectrum feels very vintage, yet very modern, and grooves just so well, showing us that there are many different directions music can move forward with, while still looking back at its roots.
To any Prince fan, both albums are a must have, but to a more casual audience, I would recommend PlectrumElectrum over Art Official Age. Both albums are incredibly well written and recorded and I have listened to both of them many times, enjoying it each time a little more than the last. Art Official Age is truly a Prince album, one that any fan would love, but to more casual fans, it may not be what they are looking for. PlectrumElectrum, on the other hand, sets the bar for the entire genre of rock much higher, and while it is very much a Prince album, its separation from the pop genre makes it a must have for any rocker.
Art Official Age
1: Art Official Cage
4: The Gold Standard
5: U Know
6: Breakfast Can Wait
7: This Could Be Us
8: What It Feels Like
9: Affirmation 1& 2
10: Way Back Home
13: Affirmation 3