Sunday, September 29, 2013

Break Down and Crawl

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Prince, Graffiti Bridge. Is this when Prince jumped the shark? Even at the time, this uneven soundtrack to the ludicrous 1990 film of the same title sounded half-flaky and half-inspired (at best). So why did I end up spinning it so much? I revere Sign O the Times much more, enjoy Lovesexy and Purple Rain more consistently, even think more highly of the Black Album than this largely tinny pseudo-revue. And yet song for song I know this record all too well, and I think it has partly to do with how much I love a handful of the tracks on it as much or more than any in Prince’s catalogue, and partly to do with the weirdly intimate, homespun quality those great songs have in spades, which the bad songs also partake of; it's hard to tear them apart, much as I'd like to.

If "homespun" seems an odd word for the often dense soundscapes Prince concocts, I find it an apt way to describe the intense single-mindedness of the record’s sound, the sense of a solitary musical vision rattling around in a self-reinforcing echo chamber, both figuratively and literally--I can almost see the man building these songs layer by layer, sound by sound, into the wee hours in some tricked-out home studio. I think this roomful-of-mirrors aspect accounts both for the special intensity of the record’s highs and for the bad-idea pile-ons of its low moments.

Indeed, though it’s above my pay grade, it probably says a lot about Prince’s psychology that a sense of solitude would emerge so strongly from a record so crowded with guest appearances and group-chorus singalongs. But the too-closeness is there from the opening “Dear Dad” monologue and tantrum-like drum blasts of “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” an upbeat song in a major key that nevertheless manages to set a tone of teeth-clenched tension, and which establishes the record’s junky, springy sound, a mix of electric guitar crunch and synth honey over taut, hip-hoppy beats. “New Power Generation” is a somewhat perfunctory anthem, and it’s not until the third track, “Release It,” that the record really takes off, with Morris Day doing his slickster shtick over Prince’s snappiest, slipperiest backing track ever. The high is sustained through the sinuous stomp and sweep of “The Question of U” and the light, tasty grind of “Elephants and Flowers,” and it rises again with the smoky, sneakily dramatic “Joy in Repetition,” one of many such songs that makes you wish an actual film had sprouted around it.

That’s pretty much the sum of Graffiti Bridge’s achievement--four or five great tracks out of 17--with the rest alternating between disposable pop, clammy funk, and heavy-spirited balladry. Guest appearances by Tevin Campbell, Mavis Staples, and George Clinton are, if not outright embarrassments, then missed opportunities, while the rest of the songs with Day and The Time are shruggingly average party jams at best. But all have the thing that make this record compelling, if only intermittently listenable--that gritty/cute bounce swathed in ever-more-baroque production that was Prince’s mid-career signature, and the sense that the general had gotten lost in his own labyrinth, where the path had become both interestingly dark and frustratingly opaque.

Comments:
Kurt Kassulke Joy in repetition is one of my favorite lesser known Prince songs. I liked Tevin Campbell (round and round?) as well. And Mavis Staples is always amazing.
Jason Benjamin The beginning of him losing all restraint and me bailing out as a fan. Graffiti would have been a very strong album if he had kept it to 8-10 songs. There is no saving the movie, although the Rifftrax crew could probably have a ball.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Yeah, for all my love of those four or five great songs, this was basically the end of my following his work with any kind of attention. And I would LOVE to see a RiffTrax of the movie.
Kirk Pynchon Release is brilliant simply for this one lyric" "Who told you women liked men with no money?"
Mark Watkins release it boy
Mark Watkins tick tick bang - c'mon!
Mark Watkins He worked on a couple pretty good/great songs on the new janelle monae abum (sic)
Mark Watkins post hog -- sorry, went back and listened -- my 2 goose bump tracks have always been Question of U and Still Would Stand All Time (if you can get past the treacly Disney beginning at 3:20 it kicks in hard) for the coordinated hand claps and choir work -- both are emotional experiments, creepy and beautiful. definitely this --> compelling but intermittently listenable
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Kirk: Believe it or not, but I have always heard that line as "Who tortures women like men with no money?" I don't know what that says about me. And @Mark, the new Janelle joint is great--she's his true heir, it seems clear.       

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