Art Official Age is many things at once. A funk album bombarded by cosmic rays and mutated into something else. A semi-autobiographical sci-fi concept album about love and partying in the twenty-teens. A mess. Disappointing in some respects and admirable in others, Prince’s follow up to 2010’s 20Ten is a return to form for The Purple One that suffers from being too many albums at once.
Let’s start with the album’s opener, “Art Official Cage”, which is either a perplexing club anthem or an official theme song to an alternate universe’s 2014 Olympic games. There’s reggaeton airhorns, there’s a woman shouting in French, everything is vaguely inspirational. Given how much it differs from other songs on the album, I can’t decide if “Cage” is just a weak last minute addition or if it’s Prince deliberately overproducing the weirdest pop song he can make to signal that he’s done with that kind of music. Either way, rough start.
With the sound of radio static and distortion of “Clouds”, Art Official Age switches gears completely with a smooth romantic ballad.
You should never underestimate the power of
A kiss on the neck, when she doesn’t expect
A kiss on the neck, when she doesn’t expect
A kiss on the neck
And every time you catch her singin’ in the shower
You should go and get a flower
Don’t matter what the hour
Just rub it on her back, rub it on her back, rub it on her back
Without warning, guest vocalist Lianne La Havas, a narrator of sorts for the album as a whole, appears to catch Prince (and us) up to speed on what’s going on here (sort of).
Mr. Nelson, Mr. Nelson, can you hear my voice?
Sir, we know you’re a little bit groggy
And you’re probably going to find it hard to speak
But don’t try to talk or process too much now
We just want to let you know that the medication you were given
Has put you in a suspended animation for quite some time
Well, in fact, about 45 years
But where you are now
Is a place that does not require time
That being said, you are completely safe
And we are here to help you
While this segment of “Clouds” was hard to read when the song was initially released as a single, in the context of the album as a whole it makes far more sense; Prince has awoken a la Steve Rogers in a music landscape unfamiliar to him, and he has to find his voice again. A musician out of time in the age of the Twittersphere.
“The Breakdown,” previously reviewed on Deadshirt as a single, pairs nicely with “Clouds” as an introspective realization of a life long lived.
“The Gold Standard” feels like a studio-commissioned song meant to run over the end credits of one of those horrible crowdfunded Atlas Shrugged movies (It’s not too late, producers!) but really shines thanks to a strong horn section and Prince’s distorted voice singing about a “solid gold hashtag” and yelling at us to put our phones away. This is the kind of song you wish characterized the entire album, a bump ‘n’ grinder that doesn’t take itself seriously.
“Breakfast Can Wait” takes this vibe even further with a keyboard-centric track about the virtues of early morning sex. There’s something very sweet about how straightforward and almost off-the-cuff the song’s chorus feels.
Finally my eyes are open
I dream about you all night long
The only thing that I’ve been hoping for
is before you to go to work babe, we get it on
I ain’t tryin’ to make you blush,
But I just wanted to tell ya, I think you’re great
I know you’re late, but I need another taste,
Breakfast can wait!
The entire concept of the next song, “This Could Be Us,” is incredible. Prince, who once famously declared “the internet is completely over,” turns a twitter hashtag into a wistful accounting of a doomed love affair. Logically it shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s one of the album’s more subtle successes.
“Way Back Home” returns us more directly to the conceptual crux of Art Official Age as Prince bittersweetly acknowledges once and for all that he can never totally return to the kind of music he used to make. This, in turn, sets up and informs “FUNKNROLL,” a “Partyman” descendant that’s part dance jam, part Sonic The Hedgehog background tune.
The album’s penultimate track, “Time,” (with Andy Allo) is the longest song on the album, and a duet at that. It’s nice enough, but it doesn’t offer anything that you haven’t already heard on this exact album before. Art Official Age closes on “Affirmation III”, a reprise of sorts of “Time” with Le Havas Vanilla Sky-splaining that Prince (and all of us) all have infinite potential. “Remember there’s only one destination, and that is You”.
Age‘s biggest failing is that it wants to be all things to all people and never totally satisfies in what it pursues. Even though you get a sense of Prince coming to terms with his place in the grand scheme of music, this is an album from a musician who’s not sure of where to go from here. The big takeaway from Art Official Age’s handful of note-hitters, however, is that he may still yet get there.
Art Official Age and its companion PlectrumElectrum are available today online or at your local record store.
Editors note: The text of this piece has been revised to identify Andy Allo as the duet singer on “Time.”