|Image courtesy Wikipedia.org|
Prince has a lot of albums, and thus a lot of album openers. For my money, though, none of them are quite as astounding as the title track on his 1985 album Around the World in a Day. Musically, the song alludes to the Middle East, to South Asia, and, inexplicably, Prince's unique brand of 80s dance-rock. His voice is gritty, powerful, as soulful as ever. The combination of synth sounds, world music sounds, acoustic guitars, and drum machines creates a powerful musical onslaught. And, probably most importantly, it is a thoroughly creative song the likes of which has never been replicated by Prince or anyone else.
It's hard to write a totally unique song. But this was Prince coming into his own as an artist, and such things were coming relatively easy to him at the time. Or so it seems to us fans.
As I see it, the Around the World in a Day album is noteworthy for two main reasons. The first is the amount of space that Prince left in the songs on this album. Where 1984's Purple Rain was a complex onslaught of tracks and overdubs working together, this album feels much more spacious. The end result of that decision highlights the other aspect of this album that I love: the arrangements. God, what an amazing job Prince and his band did arranging all the instruments on this record. His previous work was certainly well-orchestrated, but the decision to leave more open space in the music required him to make each note matter a lot more. Lucky for us, he rose to the challenge.
Never is this more apparent than on the album's smash hit, "Raspberry Beret." Fundamentally, the song isn't particularly genius. It's catchy, it's nice, but stripped down to its fundamentals it's not a really special song. What really makes it wonderful is the bobbing, weaving, melody played by the synths and guitars throughout the song. They outline the chord progression without playing it outright. The song has a lot of lyrics, a lot of melody, and so the choice to sing over the top of a completely different melody played by the instrumentalists is different - and especially so, considering the amount of space in that song and throughout the album. The only way to make it work is with a razor-precise arrangement. Prince delivers the goods. That's why they call him a genius.
All these years later, it's also somewhat important to point out the difference between the album's reputation and what it actually sounds like when you listen back to it now. Wikipedia, for example, states that the album genres are "neo-psychedelia," "pop rock," and "psychedelic pop." The songs, however, are concise, and not particularly indulgent, especially coming from an artist who has, at various times released 12-minute songs, set human orgasms to music, worn seatless pants on stage, etc. Even the stranger moments are moments, not of psychedelia, but of experimentation with sampling and tape-editing. The roots of that experimentation represents the evolution of R&B music, not psychedelia at all.
But "psychedelia," when used by music commentators, is a more pretentious word for "trippy." Hence, anything that seems different or experimental can be labeled "psychedelic," as can thoroughly banal music that happens to be associated with drug use. It's widely acknowledged that drug use was not a major part of the Prince oeuvre or creative process, much to the chagrin of the Rolling Stone world. He even attests to this fact in "Pop Life," when he sings "Whatcha puttin' in your nose? Is that where all your money goes?" But since Around the World in a Day is such a different Prince record, they had to give it some kind of label that would stick, and some music fans won't allow modern music to be anything other than sex and drugs.
Instead, I'd classify the album as simply mature. The sensible arrangements and instrumental restraint provide hints of the Prince that was to be just a few years later, while the eclectic sounds and willingness to experiment remind us that this is an artist who is never content to rest on his laurels. Let's face it, Prince had every reason to make his 1985 album a Purple Rain II. If he had, he would have made many more millions. Luckily for us, Prince has artistic integrity and a will to push himself beyond our expectations, and his expectations, sometimes resulting in something that goes platinum thirteen times... and other times resulting in something more refined, for the people like me.
I absolutely love this album.