Yesterday’s post featured Prince’s “Batdance,” which is probably not considered by most fans to be one of his best singles. Also in the unlikely favorite category is our favorite of his (depending on how you count them) forty plus albums.
It started as a li’l crush but its become full-on love. Art Official Age is our favorite Prince album. Art Official Age was Prince’s last album to be released on record, but it was also his last substantive work. The two part Hit n Run series has its moments — and its general ‘return to form’ was welcomed by longtime fans — but neither feels like an album to take seriously in the same sense as those from Prince’s most celebrated career arc running from Controversy to The Gold Experience.
As much as Prince’s work often embraced the Wagnerian concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk‘ (or a complete and total work of art to encompass many disciplines), Art Official Age is the only true ‘concept album’ in his catalog. Like the great concept albums of the past, its story is convoluted, confusing and ultimately kind of dumb. But it provides a setting for some really remarkable songs. The plot of Art Official Age makes no more sense than the plot of Tommy, but its futuristic setting clearly inspired some of Prince’s most remarkable late-period performing and production.
It’s remarkable that for an artist whose music is so often morbid, the future Prince imagines after 40 years in suspended animation in Art Official Age is not ominously dystopian. In fact, the often-sunny Honeydogs provided a more bleak future in their (also Minnesota-bred) concept album 10,000 Years. One of the standout moments in Art Official Age is also the tune which is most distinctively in Prince’s classic style — In “This Could Be Us” he doesn’t lament any unimagined future but rather the past and present.
We’re likely to hear unfinished Prince projects in the future — It’s a certainty, given the contentious nature of his estate, that the inevitable cash-cow of unreleased tracks will be taken to market. We are still hearing new recordings by John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, but whether we’re really gaining anything from the experience stands to be established. For instance, last year’s release of the complete recordings from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme include recordings which he himself decided did not achieve the goal of expressing what he wanted to say. If the artist decided it wasn’t worthy of release, shouldn’t we respect that choice? Or do we live in a world of such all-encompassing transparency that even what one throws away is open game?
Prince,ironically approached the subject of ownership in Art Official Age, but it seems unlikely that in the dialogue from the album’s last track (which, also ironically, uses the title “Affirmation”) he was speaking of creative control. How an artist could keep such tight control over his work in life and yet have no plans for its future is beyond us — truly one of the many mysteries Prince left for the ages.