2015-12-04

Album Review: Prince - 1999

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Prince's 1999 is such landmark, legendary, famous record that any review I could write for Stationary Waves is totally extraneous. Suppose I love the album; then, that makes me no different than millions of other music lovers across multiple generations. Suppose, on the other hand, that I hate the album; what does it matter? The album has already proven itself to the annuls of history.

Considering that fact, the best I can do for an album like this is discuss some of the elements of this album that have meant something to me over the years.

The title track is one of the most famous songs of all time. But when it came out, I was very young, and as a result I didn't come to a full appreciation of this song until much later in life. As familiar as everyone is with this song, there are elements that I think some people miss. One of those things is the construction of the melody in the verse. There are four lines in the verse; the first three are slight variations on each other, and the fourth consists of all of the previous three sung in unison, in harmony. Prince didn't invent this sort of thing, but it was the first time I had ever heard that concept applied and been aware of it.

What this tells me about Prince's approach to composition - and your mind may certainly vary - is that it is a lot more conceptual and deliberate than the average musician. Prince often gets full accolades for being a passionate songwriter, but he is seldom praised for the deliberateness with which he approaches the construction of a melody. On "1999," he proves that he deserves to be.

A lot of Prince's records from the 80s feature his characteristic drum machine/synthesizer sound, and that sound is certainly everywhere on 1999. Less obvious, and consequently less appreciated, are the guitar and bass tones on the album. One reason for this is that they tend to be drowned out by the comparatively higher volumes of the drum machines and synthesizers. Still, both the guitar and bass tones are crunchy and punchy, with a warm overdrive on both that lends a more organic edge to what would otherwise be, well, synth-pop.

One element to Prince's early sound - including 1999 - was almost certainly obvious at the time of its release, but has likely been lost to newer fans in the wake of how music has evolved. Take the song "Delirious," for example: Here we have a classic Prince synth-pop song that sounds extremely 80s. Yet, compositionally speaking, this is a classic 1950s-style rock 'n roll song. Replace the drum machine with a real drummer, replace the vintage 80s synthesizer with 16th notes on a piano, and it could just as easily have been released on a Little Richard record. I think when people my age hear or read comparisons of Prince to Little Richard, most assume that the comparison pertains to the artists' respective flamboyance on stage. Perhaps some apply the comparison to the artists' trademark falsetto screams. Few really understand that the comparison goes right to the heart of their songwriting. In the 80s, though, Little Richard was still touring extensively, his fans were still buying new pop records, and people would have understood this a lot better than they do now.

In hindsight, people may not remember just how long a lot of the songs on 1999 are. There are eleven songs on the record, and most of them are well over five minutes long. Note that the album was released at a time when radio songs were still on the order of three minutes long. Because I grew up during the heyday of compact discs, even I was unaware of the fact that 1999 was a double-LP when it originally came out. Long songs on a double-LP? Gosh, that almost sounds like...

It almost sounds like Prince is a bit of a prog-rocker. I say it all the time. The song lengths are a big part of this, not just because "the songs are long," but because in order to pull of a long synth-pop song, an artist has to be capable of injecting enough musical variety into the material t hat the listener (a stereotypical pop listener) doesn't get board. Prince accomplishes this with that deliberate and conceptually oriented approach to melody construction that I mentioned above. Take the song "D.M.S.R." for example: the piece begins with very sparse instrumentation, driven forward by a powerful drum-machine beat. But as the song unfolds, Prince adds additional layers, and these layers interact with each other. In some cases, a blend of layers A, B, and C add up to significantly different harmonic content than a blend of layers X, Y, and Z... but also different harmonic content from a blend of, say, A, Z, and C. In an era in which one couldn't simply sample a piece of music digitally and then move it around a user interface to see what happens, what this means is that Prince's hefty compositional prowess was the driving force behind this kind of layering - and that's remarkable.

There are people my age and younger who know 1999 only as the album that produced "1999" and "Little Red Corvette." Most of us have heard those songs, and most of us like them, and that is as deep as most younger people have bothered to dive. If you've heard these songs, though, and still ended up wondering why people call Prince a "genius," I urge you to explore the deep tracks on this album, paying close attention to the way they were composed. It's worth it. 1999 is a great record.