Saturday, July 31, 2010

Prince: Dirty Mind (1980)

(Warner Bros.)


Almost inarguably, this is the moment when most of the world fell in love with Prince. His first album, For You, had been a low-level R&B programmer with the standout "Soft and Wet," only a minor chart success at the time. Its eponymous followup was more distinctive and exciting, packed with pricelessly overwrought cover art and at least six now-classic songs, but even it was locked firmly into a genre format, with only vague suggestions of the eccentric hidden artist. Dirty Mind is an incalculably different universe.

My generation's been raised on the idea of genre-bending as an in-vogue item thanks to folks like Beck, OutKast, Missy Elliott, any number of others too restless for even the faintest idea of a stylistic confinement. So it's hard to imagine now, but in 1980, soul singers didn't do what Prince does on this album. As much a hotbed of controversy as his lyrics may have been and would become, the most audacious thing about this guy was how little he cared to adhere to pop musical convention. Which isn't to suggest that George Clinton and Stevie Wonder did, but as great as both were, one would be hard pressed to name an album by either that covered this much ground in so little time (less than thirty-one minutes).

Like Stevie, Prince is a solo act in the truest sense of the word. Very little noise on Dirty Mind is not somehow generated by him. What's fascinating about the albums he recorded this way, which is an awful lot of them, is how effortless it sounds. On Wonder's '70s albums, he's not only obviously giving every ounce of his attention, he wants you to know how hard he's working. It's not that Prince's work sounds comparatively tossed off at all, it's more than it seems he barely has to even think consciously to craft each of these eight songs, all but one of them (the still-worthwhile jam "Do It All Night," about doing it all night, would likely fit in more nicely on the last album) wholly unique and groundbreaking and consistently surprising. Prince is the kid in class who doesn't even have to stay fully awake to ace his tests. Maybe his confidence can be overbearing at times, particularly today, but one thing for sure: he earns it.

Except lyrically (which we'll come to in a moment), the title track wouldn't be out of place on Talking Heads' Remain in Light, released the same day. The primitive, harsh, wheezing synthesizers create a surreal, disorienting soundscape. After two albums of silky smooth balladry and laid-back jams, Prince here aims to provoke with stabbing hardest-core funk. The rawness is deliberate -- the track, like many others here, was recorded as a demo for later polish, but in the earliest of many earth-shaking artistic choices, Prince decided the public could handle his latest creations unfiltered, stark and minimal.

And over this stilted, Tubeway Army-like backing, Prince sings with no disguise or pretense about how much and how long he wants to fuck someone, possibly you. The album Prince was not exactly chaste lyrically; one slow jam had him casually pleading to the lucky lady to let him "come inside" her, and the album's foreshadowing rock move insisted that a lesbian should try his dick. But Dirty Mind leaves no doubt of the first and most important of Prince's several fixations. Even if not every song here is pornographic, all are taboo, and in Prince's sexually explicit ramblings and come-ons lies franker and more lasting poetry than soul music had yet seen. Any listener who put aside the head-spinning musical and rhythmic revelations on this record long enough was bound to notice at last that there's a song about incest, a song involving a threesome, and a song not merely about a blowjob but about getting one from a woman on her wedding day. After years of euphemism, the directness of Prince's manifestos must have been refreshing; they remain nearly as much so now: it's all funny, sure, maybe even a little silly, but it's also smart, and it's very fully human. The way media sex ought to be.

Given all this, what's perhaps most remarkable is just how impossible it is to concentrate on what Prince is going on about when faced with the sheer virtuosity of his writing, playing, and production here. Somehow "Gotta Broken Heart Again" approaches X-rated nightclub cabaret in a gleefully mindbending arrangement that anticipates Sign o' the Times. Side Two drops space between songs altogether, flying breathlessly from "Uptown" to "Head" to "Sister" to "Partyup," each either inventing a new subgenre or tackling an existing one with such skill as to be worthy of 1968 Beatles.

"Uptown" documents a freaky night in the life with innovative skittering synth and guitar trickery, especially impressive for Prince's vocal interaction with the rhythm and guitar tracks; no longer content to give the rock moves their own song ("Bambi"), Prince turns it all loose on this cut, showing what he's capable of with seemingly every instrument he has and every trick he knows. This is the kind of song radio formatters detest; at two minutes in, it's a different song than it is thirty seconds before or after. "Head" -- the subject of which you can surely guess -- is the second-greatest song on Dirty Mind and its most lovingly crafted, the irresistibly funky rhythmic tricks ingeniously backgrounding the opera of another Prince sexual conquest (this time with a speaking role) as he announces "You know, you're good, girl; I think you like to go down!" It's fucking incredible: Prince ends up single-handedly sounding like all of Parliament-Funkadelic here, replete with a perfect Bernie Worrell imitation in the bridge, evidently meant here to evoke the internal drama of oral sex. The faux-female vocals are terrific, the playful rhyme scheme a joy.

By the time of "Sister" and "Partyup," I can't imagine any doubters are left. Just in case, "Sister" is a straight-ahead punk/new wave track, and not even an imitation of one, it's actual banging, sly punk worthy of the Ramones (length is 1:31) or Richard Hell but more honest and artfully teasing than either ever could be. Prince seems to revel endlessly in the lack of limitation to what he's now permitted himself to sing about; if "My sister never made love to anyone else but me" wasn't great enough, he throws in the memorable chorus "Incest is everything it's said to be!" as if it's just another tune about walkin' on sunshine or bringin' down the government. Never flinching before his nonchalant barrier-busting, he lays on the guitars and then settles into the menacing rock & roll groove of "Partyup," fusing the soon-to-be-familiar Wall of Prince vocals with a tricky, constantly shifting track oozing with energy. This unexpectedly leads into a surprisingly affecting sociopolitical chant about who knows what: "You gonna have to fight your own damn war, 'cause we don't want to fight no more." The cumulative effect is staggering; never again could anyone doubt that Prince was something above and beyond a typical R&B or rock & roll singer.

And not to say this is all for nothing, but the mini-psychodrama in the middle of Side One might single-handedly make this a classic album anyway. It would be a couple of years still before Prince's first full-length masterpiece, 1999, but perversely, Dirty Mind contains what I think is his greatest achievement as a songwriter. "When You Were Mine" is one of the dozen or so finest songs in pop music, stunningly graceful, witty, emotive, and concise. It's brilliant on countless levels. Produced and performed like the purest of synthpop classics, it bubbles with background joy while Prince loses his mind on the microphone. The sheer perfection of his guitar line gets its emphasis during a brief and delicious breakdown. But this is heartache born of distressing reality; the level of lived-in detail in lines like "You didn't have the decency to change the sheets" and hysterical understatements like "I never was the kind to make a fuss" (about sharing the bed with his lover and her other boyfriend), as richly funny as they are, betray actual scars. Perhaps no moment in his career as a vocalist aches like when, shattered by her departure, he confesses that he's been "following him whenever he's with you," or the sheepish "You were kinda sorta my best friend," and even in something so simple (but ah, so complex, and so believably fragile) as the chorus, "I love you more than I did when you were mine." The intense, felt melancholy makes it funny and touching; the humor and empathy mark its harrowing sadness.

The song's durability is demonstrated by magnificent covers in the last few years by Dent May, turning it into something approaching English folk, and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, taking the hilarious, resigned deadpan backing vocals in the original to their obvious conclusion by making the entire song deadpan. The elegance of Prince's composition and lyric always shine over every performance quirk. It doesn't matter if Prince never tops this because this song is his statement of purpose -- love and sex are hard, funny, weird, troubling, and most likely worth all the torture he finds so many ways to express.

In his hands, all this stuff about fucking isn't petty or juvenile; it feels kind of important, and many of us have spent the years since this album on the edge of our seats to hear what profoundly dirty-minded declarations he would make next.

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