Snap Judgment: Four New Prince Songs on Indie 103.1
Decades before Radiohead or Trent Reznor became the rebel darlings of a new media age, Prince was raising a well-manicured middle finger toward anyone who'd tell him how to be a pop star. It was 1984 when "Purple Rain" forced the world to remember that "black music" and "rock" are not contradictory terms, and as he's moved through various phases, he's never given up on that mission. So it's not surprising that today he debuted four new songs on the Steve Jones-helmed "Jonesy's Jukebox" on Indie 103.1 -- a rock show, and the closest thing to anarchy on commercial radio today.
Prince wasn't there to play the songs; he'd handed them over in CD form to the station's music director, Mark Sovel (a.k.a. "Mr. Shovel"), after playing them for Sovel on the "club-level" sound system in his mansion's basement home entertainment center. Sovel was, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic, and so his Purpleness agreed to let him take the songs to Jonesy.
On air, Sovel told Jones that Prince hadn't yet decided how to release the music: "He actually wants nothing to do with record labels," he said. "He's meeting with people, trying to figure out what to do." Sovel said he'd heard about an album's worth of material. Partnering with Indie 103.1 seemed like a logical first step, he added, because the material was "really heavy guitar." After playing Coachella and covering the Foo Fighters during his Super Bowl halftime show, "he's reaching out to the rock audience."
So how rocking was the new material? Beyond such generic judgment calls, was it great?
A track-by-track assessment is after the jump.
Track 1, "Crimson and Clover/Wild Thing": The fact that the first sample was a well-worn cover wasn't too inspiring; did Prince really think he could best Joan Jett's definitive take on the Tommy James classic? But by going extremely Beatlesque, with a treated vocal evocative of John Lennon's on "I Am the Walrus" and a mix that moves from headphone to headphone in vintage stereophonic style, Prince claimed the chestnut for himself. The mash-up with the Troggs' greatest hit is probably a nod to Jimi Hendrix, who covered "Wild Thing" at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. This was Jonesy's favorite.
Track 2, "Colonized Mind": A dark funk-rock groove underpins this ballad, blending the sound of "Hotel California"-era Eagles with late-period Sly Stone. The lyrics harken back to Prince's own "Sign of the Times." He uses cyberspace metaphors to describe how people use their illusions to enslave themselves; it's prophecy in purple, with Prince reflecting on the evils of the world and posing faith in God as a solution. A couple of lines seem to advocate for the position that every child should have a mother and a father, reigniting the recent controversy about the singer's stance on gay marriage. Musically, the coolest part is the song's end, which features a palimpsest of guitar and vocal effects similar to cuts on Axl Rose's misunderstood epic "Chinese Democracy."
Track 3, "Wall of Berlin": Now this is what we love -- a good old-fashioned sexscapade. A cool, spare, jazzy arrangement sets up Prince's lyric about a chance encounter with a German fraulein. After years of trying, he's got his singsong rapping style down, and he has a ton of fun spinning out the double-entendres: "It's so fresh, knockin' down the Wall of Berlin." The most immediately striking track, and probably the one that will get the most enthusiastic reception from fans. Andre 3000 is gonna love it.
Track 4, "4Ever": The most characteristically "Prince" of the tracks is a piano-based ballad that swells to accommodate strings and highly emotional vocals. It's uptempo, though, with Prince bemoaning his lover's lack of interest with a few of his patented eye-rolls: "I never get to hold your hand, I never get to be your man, but that's OK, because I've got other plans right now...." As the lyrics about desire and resistance unfold, one can't help but wonder: Did Prince write this after he saw "Twilight"? He'd make a great vampire, wouldn't he?
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Prince at the 2008 Grammy Awards. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press