Saturday, June 10, 2017

Graffiti Bridge (1990)

By the time Prince died—on April 21, 2016—I had mathematically spent more of my life living in Washington state than Minnesota. But that didn't blunt anything for me about his passing. He was one of those people who wasn't supposed to die before me. I never met him—well, I literally bumped into him a couple of times at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis. Somehow it still felt a little like a death in the family. I was surprised, when I went to my CD stacks (which I have been systematically downsizing for more than 10 years), to find I had everything but two albums from Dirty Mind to Emancipation (1980 to 1996, including every title from his extraordinary dump of product in the mid-'90s). The two that were missing, Around the World in a Day and Parade, I had bought as vinyl and they are lesser efforts by my lights anyway. (I think this is also the place to say how much I resented "D.M.S.R." being dropped from the CD version of 1999.) Eventually, over the last year, much of his catalog has made it to Napster too, at least into that mid-'90s dump. There's still little beyond anthologies for the last 20 years of his life, though he remained about as prolific. It's probably going to stay like that a while as legal issues are sorted out. On the bright side, we're likely to see new Prince music before we see new J.D. Salinger novels.

Graffiti Bridge was Prince's first album in the '90s and his first with the New Power Generation (NPG), and also includes a reunion with the Time. In my listening that followed his death (normally I put away albums after an artist dies, but this is another area where Prince was different for me) I noticed the albums I was quickest to reshelve tended to be his widely accepted best and/or personal favorites of mine: Controversy, 1999, Dirty Mind, Sign O' the Times. Call them all used up at least for the time being. With the exception of Sign O' the Times, which has never seemed more to me than the sum of its impressive (but inconsistent) parts, I would still rank them high, but more based on what I remember of listening to them and/or seeing him at the time. I did find a good deal of life remaining for me in Purple Rain—particularly the title song, which I never before heard with so much clarity, and the more obscure numbers (especially "Take Me With U" and "The Beautiful Ones") still sounded great or even better. On the basis of this, I would probably call Purple Rain his greatest album if forced to make a single choice.

As for Graffiti Bridge: Diving deeper into the widely accepted second-tier or third-tier albums, all the way to finally getting back to those first two albums—1978's For You and 1979's Prince—I was often impressed even in the lesser efforts with a certain foundation, a supremely poised platform of quality, no matter how rote or like product it might feel, always there in terms of the songwriting, production, and other elements. Prince was strong in no fewer than four separate areas: songwriting, production, performance (including vocals and showmanship), and guitar playing. These attributes bleed across and have varying importance in recording and live performance—you could argue for seven if you separate vocals and showmanship and add choreography and charisma—but he is always strong in certain areas. This consistency may be partly explained as part of the reason most of his stuff was just him in a studio.

Graffiti Bridge is a good case study and a kind of template for the rest of his career. For all his chops as a performer, I have always connected to Prince most as a recording artist. He writes great songs, with wonderful hooks, pinpoint twists and turns that release impressive gales of aggression and sweetness. He always seemed to know all his sources too, from Little Richard and James Brown forward to Journey and beyond. Those gifts are on all his albums, as they are here, as a certain bottom line. Take "The Question of U," which stands out to me as a matter of getting to the guitar solo, one of the attention-getting, riveting moments I find on all Prince albums. But you wouldn't necessarily know what's coming from the two minutes that precede it. It's a stompy, moody ballad of some kind, with a lonely singer wondering which way to turn. The production deepens the tale, underlines the melody, builds out the song skillfully. Finally we arrive at that guitar solo, which, I admit, is the reason I'm talking about this song. It's lyrical, and eloquent. He's not just picking notes but carrying on the themes of the song at deepest moving layers: the nagging question of you, and which way to turn. It's beautiful. Then the song returns, at last stealing away softly into the ferocious piccolo that introduced it. A remarkable song like that, just sitting there in an obscure Prince album.

There's more here too, and arguably better—collaborations with Tevin Campbell, George Clinton, Mavis Staples, and the Time, rousing NPG anthems fore and aft, a top 10 hit ("Thieves in the Night"), a top 20 hit ("Round and Round"), and the usual razzle-dazzle glamour. Plus a whole new band! All of it laying the ground for Diamonds and Pearls and O(+> to follow. Graffiti Bridge is also, I better mention, some kind of soundtrack to a Prince film I have never seen, much like Parade and Purple Rain before it (though I have seen their related films). I bought Graffiti Bridge when it was new and enjoyed it quite a bit, though I had rarely returned to it until last year.

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