Beyoncé released her new album last year without any advance notice. U2 did the same this month — but gave away its record free to iTunes account holders. Prince has decided to go old school with his brand new project.
Make that projects. Like Bruce Springsteen and Guns 'N Roses in the early '90s, he is issuing two new albums on a single day Tuesday. But of course Prince takes a slightly different approach — one is with his new band, 3rdEyeGirl, the other is pretty much a one-man-band effort.
"Art Official Age," the Prince record, and "PlectrumElectrum," with 3rdEyeGirl, are his first U.S. albums since 2009's "LotusFlow3r/MPLSound," a triple-CD that was a Target exclusive. The following year, he offered "20Ten" only in Europe, distributing it via newspapers and magazines. The two new discs are his first for Warner Bros. since 1996, when he acrimoniously left the label that signed him as a teenager and was his home for 19 years.
"Plectrum" is the more fully realized and satisfying disc. It's more energetic, emotional and exciting. It helps that Prince and 3rdEyeGirl — guitarist Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer Hannah Ford Welton — have been performing most of these songs in concert for a good year and a half. There are palpable sparks from working with a new band — one that seems more creatively collaborative than any Prince group since the Revolution.
The recording balances the heavy-rock workouts heard in concert with lighter, more crafted pop pieces and even — surprise —a rap tune featuring Lizzo, currently the toast of the Twin Cities. Her number, "Boy Trouble," is fresh, funky and feminine, with Prince somewhat invisible on the track. Welton takes lead vocals on the dreamy and wistful "Whitecaps," which sounds like he encouraged her to listen to Joni Mitchell.
But the Purple One's fingerprints and voice are all over "Plectrum."
"Marz" is a speedy punk-rocker with social commentary, reminiscent of "Ronnie, Talk to Russia" from his 1981 LP "Controversy." "Anotherlove" starts like slow-burn Prince before blossoming into a slinky, Fleetwood Mac-evoking rocker. On "Fixurlifeup," Prince comments on the pop world and encourages women: "A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band o boys / Trying 2 b a star when u're just another brick in the misogynistic wall o noise."
What stands out on "Plectrum" are the heavy rockers. The opening "Wow" is filled with attitude, mystery and guitar fireworks. The title track is a five-minute instrumental journey that sounds like the James Gang's "Funk 49" goes jazz-rock fusion. And the CD ends with the galvanizing blast of the funky, sassy and slightly swinging "Funknroll."
Electro-funk concept album
Prince offers a strikingly different reading of "Funknroll" on "Art Official Age." It's spare electro-funk, with manipulated vocals and eventually a carnival-like vibe. It's not half as exciting as the "Plectrum" version.
That song isn't the only connection between the discs. There's a visual link. On the cover of "AOA" Prince is wearing sunglasses with three lenses. Those shades would fit perfectly on the 3rdEyeGirl logo that decorates the actual CD of "Plectrum."
"Art Official Age'' — "artificial age," get it? – seems to be a concept album that's a bit unformed. Set to somewhat familiar sounds of early Prince one-man synth-funk, it does some philosophizing about life, happiness and the afterlife, and teases by having a nurse with a British accent address him as "Mr. Nelson." Yes, that's his surname.
On "Clouds" (a nod to Joni Mitchell or technology), he talks about the power of a kiss on the neck, and that nurse gives him something to put him in suspended animation for 45 years. It's a place where the sounds of his old albums "Parade" and "Around the World in a Day" pollinate.
Aided by DJ/producer Joshua Welton (Hannah's husband), Prince samples a variety of sounds, from Euro-dance with Latin tinges on the shape-shifting, danceable title track, to pretty ballads that echo "The Beautiful Ones" from "Purple Rain." Some arrangements don't seem fully thought out, as evidenced on the spare, formless and passion-less "What It Feels Like," the jazzy slow jam "Time" with its tacked-on synth-funk ending or the cartoonish Daffy Duck voice on the PG-sexy "Breakfast Can Wait" ("Fresh cup of coffee, no, no/ I'd rather have you in my glass"). That's not the only dubious lyric here. In "This Could Be Us," he sings about going steady. At age 56? Artificial age, indeed.
The best things here are the emotion-packed ballad "Way Back Home," which could be romantic or religious, and "The Gold Standard," an intriguingly eclectic workout with classic Prince synth-funk keyboards, crisp, funky guitar a la "Kiss" and a liquid bass line that suggests Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."
Prince is blurring plenty of lines between old and new on these two new albums. Neither matches his personal gold standard, but they are a welcome end to the longest recording drought of his career.