So Prince died last week at the age of 57. His death is a huge loss for music and culture – especially because I think he may have yet had great music in him. I am often struck by the richness of composer’s late periods: Bach, Hadyn, and Beethoven all wrote some of their best work in their twilight years. Bob Dylan has made some of his best records in the 21st century as a grizzled old man. Prince may have yet been capable of transcending the possibilities of music once again – and if anyone was, it surely was him – but now those hopes must be surrendered to the unknowable realm of what could have been but was not.
I’ve had mixed feelings about Prince for a long time: when I was younger, I couldn’t get into his music, because it sounded too eighties for my nineties sensibilities. Too much synthesizer, too much electronic drums. Too cheesy. I was in my 20s by the time I could appreciate the genius of songs like “Kiss” or “Sexy MF” and I was nearly 30 when I finally saw “Purple Rain” and understood just how amazing Prince really was. But then again, I could not help noticing that, while in his early years Prince was indisbutibly a sui generis phenomenon of an artist, he never seemed to get past that early period.
Steve Perry at Counterpunch observes “The Prince we are all mourning now worked from 1978-1988.” His line of criticism is more aimed at reducing Prince to that early period than what I’m trying to get at here, but still, he makes a salient point. In his first decade as an artist, Prince seemed superhuman. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had already made records where they played all or most the instruments, and sang all the parts, produced, wrote the songs, and so on – but Prince was doing it from the get-go. In some ways I think it may have been a blessing and a curse: from the very beginning of his career he was able to do everything alone. If you leave aside for the moment the shear level of talent that he showed recording all the parts, it makes sense that he was able to generate such a distinct, yet simple and direct, style. The song “When Doves Cry,” which Prince wrote and recorded in a single night while working on Purple Rain, is a very simple song. There is drum machine, a keyboard, a little guitar flair, and Prince’s aching vocals over the top. That’s it. I imagine his work process was very intuitive, and mostly improvisational. He was immensely confident, which makes that kind of work easier. But, as is demonstrated in Purple Rain, Prince had difficulty with collaboration. He was clearly a brilliant bandleader – his tours and live performances are legendary. But as a writer and producer, he seemed penned in by his talent.
The place where I think this shows the most is in his lyrics, which often feel to me like an afterthought in his songs. There isn’t any depth to the words, just a reflective surface. He is beautiful, he is mysterious, but that’s it. His best lyrics are songs like “Starfish and Coffee,” where the nonsense hook serves as a frame around a story about the virtue of being oneself. “All of us were ordinary, except for Cynthia Rose” Prince sings, including himself in the “all,” despite our already knowing that Prince is never ordinary. This is a paradox, and one that gets at the heart of Prince. For all of his enormous talent, his incredible confidence, charisma, and so on – he saw himself as a regular person. But unlike the average person, he could not connect to others, because he was always extraordinary.