Eavesdropping on Prince
The first full-length release of new material since Prince's death provides a glimpse of the artist at his most vulnerable.
The Prince Estate / Allen Beaulieu
The raid on Prince's long-sealed vault officially begins today, with Piano and a Microphone 1983, a collection of songs recorded at the artist's Kiowa Trail home studio a year before Purple Rain. It is, inevitably, a slightly uncomfortable listen. Whether you're a casual listener or dedicated collector of Prince bootlegs, the nine raw, unadorned songs on Piano and a Microphone throw up a dicey ethical question: How should we listen to the intentionally unreleased demos of a now-departed musician who so painstakingly controlled his image when he was alive?
Plenty of people did the hard work of trying to answer that before I wholeheartedly agreed to preview "Why The Butterflies," the final track on the record, last week. But it's only harder to grapple with now, after listening to the full record a half-dozen times. This session finds Prince alone in a room, with only Don Batts, his engineer, next door for company. He recorded seven songs uninterrupted in one long session and added two more at the end. The microphone crackles; when Prince's voice, piano, and thumping feet come to a rest, all that's left is thick white noise. This is intimate—often painfully so.
On the high and lonesome "Wednesday," once intended for Purple Rain, he sings in his most delicate falsetto about calling a lover and getting no answer: "Needed someone to talk to / I hate it when I'm all alone / I contemplated suicide from 12 o'clock till 2 / If you're not back by Wednesday / There's no telling what I might do." Hearing these words feels like reading someone else's journal, heart racing as you tear through paragraphs, knowing all the while that you never should have picked it up in the first place.
But of course, you keep reading; you start again from the first page and go through it all again. "Is that my echo?" Prince asks at the very start of opener "17 Days" before asking for the lights to come down in the room. The song begins in the same telephone isolation as "Wednesday": "I called you yesterday / You didn't answer your phone." He says he wants to beg the person at the other end to be near him, then he trails off into a melancholy refrain: "Let the rain come down / Let the rain come down." In that agonizing context, the one-verse, minute-and-a-half-long sketch of "Purple Rain" that follows lacks all of the redemption of the studio version.
Why are you listening, though, if not for moments like that? The appeal of the vault—an actual, physical, long-locked space, deep in his mythic Paisley Park mansion—was never just new Prince songs, a few gems to pick out of the rubble. We have enough of those already: Prince released 39 studio albums before he died, and there are enough B-sides, demos, live cuts, and side-projects out there to last most people a lifetime. What the vault promised, instead, was a glimpse of the artist at his least polished—sessions like this, in which he's emotionally vulnerable, more human than the otherworldly genius suggested. Halfway through a stunning version of "International Lover," Prince sniffles, interrupting a line of coos.
Piano and a Microphone is, thankfully, more than just the sum of those little idiosyncrasies. This was Prince at his creative apex, in the middle of a four-album stretch that seems impossible in hindsight. He'd already released Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999 one after the other before he sat down to record this, and Purple Rain was just coming together in his mind. He's virtuosic here, teasing every possible emotion from his piano, finding every possible tone in his throat, barely pausing until the tape cuts seven songs in. Aretha Franklin's version of "Mary Don't You Weep," a century-old spiritual, is a sprawling, heart-stopping thing, led by Franklin herself, but reliant on the interplay of the choir, guitar, organ, bass, and church. Prince's version here doesn't search for shortcuts: he hammers staccato notes where the snare might've held the beat; he thuds the bass keys where the choir might've swelled; he flies into soulful screeches at some crescendos and withers down to a whisper at others.
Even where the songs feel incomplete, there's the sense that Prince is exploring, finding new textures as he goes along. "Cold Coffee & Cocaine" is delivered in a faux-gruff drawl, littered with silly one-liners, off-the-cuff jokes, and jumpy trills. He's riffing: "Let's see, what rhymes with house? / Yeah, you know what, oh yeah / I'm sick of that black mouse," he sings halfway through, and I'm sure the next noise out of his mouth is a stifled laugh. It's barely a song at all—more of a late-night joke to himself, precisely the sort of thing that Prince might have wanted to keep locked up.
But there's also "Why The Butterflies," in which he tiptoes down an increasingly surreal path over one unsettlingly playful chord. He asks a series of questions, each one more troubling than the last: "Mama, what's this… Mama, what's this strange... Mama, why the butterflies…?" The piano stays jovial while he asks, "What's this shaking…" and then, lonelier than ever, "Where is father...?" Eventually he asks, "Where am I?" and the whole album is pretty much done. He's asking that last question in the song, but he's also asking it of the song—maybe he wandered off-course for a moment.
Little moments like that make Piano and a Microphone valuable, no matter how powerfully you feel like you should put the journal back in the drawer. It gives us Prince at his most isolated, creative, unhurried; it gives us Prince who maybe had allergies; it gives us Prince who could write something as bracingly beautiful as "Wednesday" and then leave it locked up.
Maybe nothing else from the vault will be this resonant and worthwhile. Even with a near-inexhaustible supply of music stacked up, the odds are that we'll end up in murkier territory with his work sooner or later—listening to thinned-out "ultra-deluxe" box-sets of remastered ephemera, flipping through coffee table books of photos he wouldn't have wanted anyone to see. We'll have to reckon with it. In the meantime, here's something special: a self-portrait of the artist as a young man, a sketch in pencil, detailed and affecting.
Follow Alex Robert Ross on Twitter.