Sunday, August 21, 2011

Prince: 1999 (1982)

(Warner Bros.)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Don't worry, I won't hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.

Things you're not allowed to say anymore, volume 1: 1999 is twice the album Thriller is. Across its sprawling seventy-one minutes is the liveliest fruition ever of what funk and R&B could once have been: a genuine kicking, screaming against ever-enveloping darkness, and that fits the world we live in even you don't think "we might die anyway," even if you're not "in love with God, he's the only way," even if, hey, 1999 was twelve whole years ago. If Dirty Mind marked the moment when the radio zeitgeist of the '80s became Prince's to own, 1999 is the point when you can actually hear Prince taking over the world.

Prince's prior two albums had contained some expert music, including his all-time masterpiece "When You Were Mine," but the difference on 1999 is two-pronged: its brilliant conception as a complete, stacked-with-genius double-LP entity, far beyond the song-by-song structure of Dirty Mind and Controversy; and more simply, the size and scope of its songs. The record is overrun with worldly, emphatic mastery, particularly on the first disc. Prince had written anthems before, but nothing even in a league with "1999," a perfect instance of a song so well-written its universal utility has failed to allow it to age, even with its antiquity in the text.

By transferring Prince's stark synth explorations of Dirty Mind to a full-band format, "1999" crafts a new kind of musical apocalypse -- quite literally, with its imagery of End Times fire and brimstone. And what is Prince really talking about, here? Is it truly that 2000 would mark some grand transformation or was it simply the idea of the last few hours of listening to one's body, of real freedom wrought by doom? It doesn't matter when the numbers still invoke a united catharsis, when strong and often passionate memories have given partying like it's 1999 an entirely separate meaning today, and when Prince has offered the finest opening lines ever penned down for a pop song, traded amongst his bandmates. "I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray." It serves doubly as the introduction to the golden age of Prince's career. But "1999" itself continues to rave on mightily as a classic, as weird and wonderful a release for private listeners and club inhabitants alike as ever. And by celebrating the weirdo, as personality and musician, in an unfettered pop context, filling this muscular piece of genius with noises and idiosyncracies you don't notice the first hundred times, Prince fulfills the promise of legions before him. He was the first geek superstar, and the first geek sex symbol since Buddy Holly.

"Little Red Corvette" may mark the moment when it became impossible not to consider that Prince might just end up in a pantheon with Holly, with Stevie Wonder and James Brown, which he quickly would. If "1999" is one of the finest club songs ever written, "Corvette" is one of the finest songs ever, period. Lyrically flawless, its ribald condom imagery, romantic longing, and sophisticated characterization are all far beyond the typical boundaries of the rock lyric. And even in 1982, which is three whole decades ago now, men and women had already spent decades if not centuries trying to pin down the emotion Prince so succinctly expresses with these eleven words: "It was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right." He doesn't toss it off, of course, because he's Prince. He wraps his voice around it and grinds through it like it matters immensely, which it does.

Approaching "Corvette" historically, it could be the first instance of layered, undeniably emotional pop balladry in such an artificial, synthesized context; rock dorks could no longer deny that the drum machine had its place. It's songs like this, the low-key late night weekend anthems, that really alter the course of millions of adolescent lives and set the world on its ear. It is the tune of its type to beat, to this day. By the flight of fancy on the bridge, the "run into the ground" streetwise lost-soul that makes rockist notions of Saturday night loneliness seem absurd with banality, you are left marveling at the utility and durability of this music, of this sequence of tracks that has lived on already through so many hundreds of Saturday nights when it seemed to erase the distance between people.

That basic emotion elevated to insurmountable, stargazing heights carries through to "Delirious," a warmer song with band interplay that Prince's former chilliness could never have duplicated, despite its continued reliance on the all-important programmed drums. The single's nasty hook belies its thematic humanity, which elegantly runs down basic lovelorn folly without condescending, overreaching, or falling off into Prince's kooky shenanigans. "I get delirious whenever you're near," we've had millions of songs about that, but none that knew quite how to say it so well.

Still, Side One is where Prince leaves his eccentricity at the door, and if that's what you really want, you don't really love Prince, even if no one would deny that "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" are the champions of all four sides. What makes 1999 so breathtaking is what's still to come. The massiveness of "Let's Pretend We're Married," its arid soundscape and disgusting groove soundtracking insane tangents of graphic sex ("fuck you so bad it hurts / it HURTS") and eventually God (basically out of nowhere at the end), crunches along for 7:21 without becoming anything less than intoxicating. The song's intricate sci-fi detail would seem an odd fit for Prince's joyfully explicit come-ons, but the IBM setting works, and unlike on Purple Rain, Prince really lets the track spin out to its conclusion, leaving no corner of its soulful rudeness and power unexplored.

"D.M.S.R." is nearly as sick, a towering synth buildup that even in its first few seconds is already laying claim as a clit-kissing party anthem for all; it stands for dance, music, sex, romance, all of which it offers excessively. Few things feel better until Prince begins to let the darkness cloud over again. The first half of the album ends with a woman screaming for help, rather believably; is it conceivable that there are more threats in this surreal urban partyscape of Prince's than just the Christ war machine at two thousand zero zero? When he talked about "fun," was he being sarcastic?

Much of the second record is spent wrestling with the implications of that moment, which clearly expresses some fear in Prince's heart. Is open sexual permissiveness a bedrock for rape and abuse, or is that repression? Is sexual permissiveness itself truly the radical idea (Prince seems preoccupied with "free love" hippies, particularly in the middle section here), or is it far more outrageous that we're so afraid of sexuality? Or is he just reminding us that the bigger the party is, the seamier the underbelly? Picture 1999 as a tall building, each song one floor, the windows spreading out lights and music and shouting in many different orders, each party unaware of those above and below it but all in the end able to say in years to come that they were in Prince's building when this night went down. And some of them even heard the scream.

But the people on whatever floor corresponded with "Automatic" were having a blast. Though hardly a cultural behemoth on a level with "Little Red Corvette," this is the album's juggernaut -- a nine-minute bondage funk attack as far-out glorious as "Erotic City," an audaciously mainstream celebration of getting tied up and whipped and fucked. The song is barely there, a minimalistic backdrop for skittering beats and impossibly eccentric, feverishly humid vocals (it may be the first song in pop history to contain backing vocals consisting of weeping, and certainly the first to frame it as eroticism). Does anyone celebrate Prince's astoundingly prescient out-in-the-open promotion of alternative then-fringe sex? No, because people are still terrified to talk about that sort of shit, which proves his point -- a point he probably no longer even agrees with. But seriously, only Leonard Cohen sang about domination and submission so consistently, and only Depeche Mode were gauche enough to make it an anthem... but Prince came out and faced it and made it unmistakable, and steamy.

The second half of 1999 has no fear of weirdness; "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)," though it forecasts the wildly divergent production style of Purple Rain, is the most sterile atmosphere of all, and takes far longer to understand than any other cut here -- but eventually, its groove strikes hard. More immediate, but still defiantly uncommercial, is the extended freakout "All the Critics Love U in New York," a nonsequitur blown up to bare-minimum funk theatrics like a series of half-formed ideas, impossibly catchy but disconnected, all strung together to make a perversely dizzying club track. It's like the Abbey Road medley as a 1:00am sex banger.

Prince proves he hasn't forgotten his roots, his original calling, with a pair of slow-jams that manage pleasingly to expand his balladeer horizons, though he would soon easily eclipse them with masterpieces "Purple Rain" and "Adore." For now, "Free" is the beautiful loverboy moment, built on a heartbeat and an itchy falsetto and triumphant melody line; "International Loverboy" the silly loverboy moment that climaxes (!) with Prince pretending to be a pilot on, yes, Prince Airways.

But if any single track gives some idea that Prince could go even farther than this, even more sophisticated, even more complete, even as this seems to do more with sex-funk and electro-urban dance music than anyone ever had or would need to, even as he seems to already be at the absolute top, it's "Lady Cab Driver." The guy didn't need to be even better, how could anyone be better than 1999? But this song contains so much, so many ideas that he and others would spend years reeling from and tweaking. Remember all that talk about Prince renaming himself The Artist many years later? Well, this is art. Not only is it a monster of a jam, pulsating and drifting and pounding like a space shuttle, it embodies a range, aesthetic and emotional, that would be fully realized on Purple Rain and especially Prince's greatest record, Sign o' the Times. Initially it sears with the same seduction as "Let's Pretend We're Married," maybe a tad more specific and sensual than just blatantly horny, but then you get to the part in the eight minute track when Prince begins fucking her and making a lecture while her orgasmic moaning persists.

What a moment this is. At first you think there's something nasty, indefensibly improper and monstrous in play when he begins naming injustices ("politicians who are bored and believe in war," "whoever taught you how to kiss in designer jeans") -- is Prince raping a woman because he doesn't like war? But no, he isn't raping her; soon, he's doing this one for me, yeah, and this for you. It's a fuck, a hard and fast fuck, as a rail against the bullshit. The place you have to live, the cab you have to drive, the rich, the tourists at Disneyland, love without sex. The thrusts are an act of defiance against whatever would rather they didn't exist, would rather short nerdy types didn't fuck lady cab drivers if the two of them wanted, would rather no one ever went out of their way for nothing more than shared pleasure -- which may finally be all that some have. Prince wants to please her, to take care of her orgasm, but also wants us all to know that he's doing this for himself too, and he's doing it because he's a person and because some things are worth believing in. The sun, the moon, the stars, God, women, and yes, sex. One wonders if in her PMRC crusade, Tipper Gore ever heard this rant, ever heard Prince making the lady cab driver come just to piss people like Tipper Gore off, and just to thrill the rest of us.

The PMRC is long past relevant now. So are Reagan and Gorbachev, so are most of the moral crusaders and crass public figures dominating the airwaves in 1982. And so, alas, is Prince, who will never be so bold as to bring it like this again. Maybe the world isn't even quite as scary now. But we have other moral crusaders, other crass people, we have others whose grand notion of justice is not letting people who like to fuck others of their gender visit their same-sex de facto spouses in the hospital. And we are nearly consumed by our own darkness, by a litany of debt crises and unemployment line, credit card declined; by rich and religious gluttons suspicious and disdainful of lady cab drivers who get paid nothing in shabby apartments; by a political landscape dominated by fear and hatred and a president whose promises of Change have been slow and compromised and anything but fierce. And what do we do in 2011 to get through this? We party like it's 1999, we fuck the ones we love and we have our Saturday nights even if we are ladies, even if we're cab drivers, and even if we're black. Or gay, or young and scared.

The idea of 1999 is simpler than it appears, then -- we can't escape the fear, we shouldn't embrace it either, but we can dance atop it without allowing ourselves to forget it's there. "My mind says prepare to fight," as the song goes. But have some fun. That's what They don't want. Perhaps this foreboding is a function of being in one's twenties and somewhat conscious of the world, but it rings as true for me here as on the more explicit (and less broadly pious, therefore more meaningful to me) Sign o' the Times. I know that 1999 invented the Minneapolis sound, but it seems to reach so far beyond that, to exist on a plane above a lot of those surely magnificent records it initially begat. It connects as if no time has passed at all, so awe-inspiring and smart it's scary, as brilliant an example as we've ever had, in any modern art form, of the personal found in the universal -- and finally, irreversibly becoming it.

Dirty Mind (1980)
Controversy (1981)

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