Sunday, July 28, 2013

Album of the week #2: July 29, 2013

Approaching a weekly album review presents challenges, with one of the biggest being what to review in the first place.  Since I am highlighting albums that I feel merit some sort of attention, whether something classic that is somehow special, or something new that inspires and excites.  Edition two is a tough one, for while week one was rather simple to choose, being impressed by a new release, week two needs to contrast by focusing on something from the past that some or many may know, but shouldn't be something that everybody knows already.

My choice this week is Prince's seventh studio album, Around the World in a Day.  Released on April 22, 1985, it arrived a mere ten months after the Purple Rain soundtrack of June '84,  and is one of only four Prince albums to hit number one on the Billboard charts (the others being the aforementioned soundtrack, the Batman soundtrack, and 3121 in 2006).  The album was an incredible departure from everything he had done up to that point, with some considering it a failed experiment.  Prince had always been a very R&B based artist, writing, performing, and producing nearly everything on his albums.  Purple Rain felt more like a full band effort, with his band The Revolution taking a more prominent position in the sound of the album, and it showcased his many sides in a very concise effort fusing dance and funk music with rock like a hybrid of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix.  Around the World in a Day was an about face that shocked many of his R&B leaning fans by fully embracing psychedelic rock and stripped down funk and pop, functioning as his own personal summer of love record and reflecting his love of Joni Mitchell and that style of music.  The album is now seen as a minor dip in quality between Purple Rain and Parade (another great record), but did go on to sell three million copies in the US (Rain sold 13 million), and spawned two top ten hits with "Raspberry Beret"(#2) and "Pop Life"(#7).

There are many touches of Beatle-based influences (not to mention cover art), and the album is full of surprises.  The title track features lots of strange and warped percussion mixed with carnival-esque instrumentation including flutes and sitar-like sounds.  "Paisley Park" is likely the cornerstone album track, with big beats similar to "When Doves Cry" from the previous year, out-of-tune organs, and ringing guitars.  Not only was this the name of a great song, but it became the name he chose for his record label AND recording studio complex in Minneapolis.  While the singles were other melodic highlights, there is some weird stuff going on between them.  "Condition of the Heart" is a big and powerful ballad that strives to twist Purple Rain's "Beautiful Ones" into something altogether trippier.  "Tamborine" is one of the shortest and strangest songs Prince ever wrote, a stark, brittle funk workout.  "America" is a unique take on the patriotic tune in a minor key, and the album closes with the big and inspiring "The Ladder" (Prince would do this again two years later to great effect on Sign O the Times with "The Cross"), and the epic "Temptation", where Prince seeks advice from God, a vocodered version of himself.  Albums tended to be shorter in this period, especially from Prince, who produced many albums for his artists that contained as few as six tracks, yet this still had nine.  "Hello", "Girl", and the classic "She's Always in My Hair" were three more B-sides that came from this era, great songs that are included on his B-sides collection.

Prince was always rather experimental for an R&B artist, much more so even than Michael Jackson, and this was one of his most out-there projects.  Coming on the heels of such a successful soundtrack, this would be considered commercial suicide by many, but Prince knew that kind of crazy success could not be maintained, so he threw caution to the wind and made something extraordinary.  What this album does offer is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of a musician without restraint, doing exactly what he wants to do without a care of sales figures, and may actually be an artistic pinnacle in a career full of them.  Prince hasn't made a truly great album in nearly 20 years, but if he wants some inspiration, maybe he should listen to this record to find a way out of his recent cold and slick mode.  When the album came out, it was an unexpected statement, and Prince was in his most confident place musically speaking, making something loose with more outside contributions.  He would be wise to do more of that today.  Still, what a fabulous legacy of recordings he made during this imperial phase, and this should be regarded as another masterpiece.

I would have posted a youtube video link to one of the singles below, but Prince still does not allow his music to appear on streaming sites and has a team of lawyers ready to remove music if it gets posted.


  1. Such a great song that should have been a single, maybe even the lead single...