Prince, "Art Official Age" (Warner Bros.)
Prince, "PLECTRUMELECTRUM" (Warner Bros.)
To attract attention, album releases can't just be album releases these days. They need to be Events — surprises, giveaways or, in U2's case, both. Prince's entry is the appearance of two stylistically distinct discs on the same day, emphasizing his freakish versatility. They also mark his return to original home Warner Bros., the company he once protested by writing "slave" on his face and briefly changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol.
The disc "Art Official Age" is Prince as the studio wizard, a funk album on which he sings and plays everything. On "PLECTRUMELECTRUM," he leads his three-piece, all-female band 3RDEYEGIRL.
The centerpiece of "Art Official Age" is the evening seduction song "U Know," cleverly driven by a repeated female vocal loop, followed by the morning seduction song "Breakfast Can Wait." They're two of his strongest cuts in decades. Yet the hurdle most veteran artists face, that technical ability now outstrips the spark of inspiration that makes a song memorable, weakens this disc. "Time" wastes too much of it, a solid slow jam that drags as it reaches nearly seven minutes.
The sound of live drums and wailing guitar that opens the fun leadoff cut "Wow" on "PLECTRUMELECTRUM" immediately signals a far different experience and, on balance, the stronger album. It's an inspired band that shines on the title cut, a Hendrixian blues jam. "Whitecaps" is a dreamy power ballad where Prince hands lead vocals to a band member, "Stopthistrain" a solid duet and "Tictactoe" updates Philly soul.
One song, "Funknroll," is on both albums with different versions -- one emphasizing the funk, the other the roll. We'll take the full band version. It's fun to make the comparison, and equally fun to explore more than 90 minutes of music that make Prince relevant again as a recording artist.