Prince: Piano & A Microphone 1983

Prince: Piano & A Microphone 1983

It’s remarkable that a home cassette recording shows so much forethought.

Prince: Piano & A Microphone 1983

3.75 / 5

As releases emerge out of Prince’s legendary vault at a maddening trickle, Piano & A Microphone 1983 is an early leftfield pick for the artist’s legacy catalogue. As the title implies, the album contains nothing more than Prince sitting down at his piano, setting down demos for material that would dot albums and B-sides, as well as covers and even a handful of unreleased rarities. At face value, the prospect of Prince working solo is not that unique, given how many of his records, and many he produced for various side projects and protégés, were, as the liner notes for his eponymous sophomore album read, “written, arranged, composed, produced and performed entirely by Prince.” Yet the album offers a rare chance to hear one of the most notoriously guarded, abstruse figures in the history of pop music working without the sheen of his dizzyingly dense arrangements and persona, leaving something close to Prince at his most plain and unvarnished.

The recordings open with “17 Days,” one of Prince’s most beloved B-sides. Like many of his most heart-wrenching tracks, it buries its sorrow under a danceable arrangement, and it’s fascinating to hear him lay down the basic progression on a piano. It almost sounds like a barroom number in this stripped-down prototype, if anything even bouncier and more jaunty without the completed version’s loping, morose bassline. In real time, you can hear Prince toying with the song, elongating some syllables to play with the meter and test the elasticity of the material as if already thinking about how to rework the song in live performances. You can hear the artist thinking three moves ahead even as he lays down the first basic guiding track, and it’s remarkable that a home cassette recording shows so much forethought.

From there, the album moves into a series of less-developed sketches of future classics and covers that find Prince playing around. “Purple Rain” circles but does not quite approach the arrangement it would eventually take, and Prince’s only lyrics concern the song’s opening. Whether he was just screwing around with the track’s building blocks or did not yet have all the words in mind, this fragment dispels some of the legend around the track’s supposed overnight construction, instead showing how snippets of ideas percolated in Prince’s head at all times and could suddenly find full development at a moment’s notice.

Similarly, “Strange Relationship,” which would not see official release until 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, launches with the exact lyrics and arrangement that would dot the released version, only for Prince to dissolve almost immediately into a mid-tempo vamp, throwing his voice around in warbling cascades before scatting over some boogie piano. Prince’s sense of humor is undervalued, and he sounds as if he’s just trying to amuse himself as he distends the track into goofy piano riffs and conflicting stabs of jubilation. He also sounds like he’s having fun, albeit more seriously, on covers of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” both of which come across as fannish moments of him kicking back with some of the songs he loves most.

The juiciest material for fans is in three sketches of unreleased tracks that fell in and out of prospective album sequences before getting the ax. “Wednesday” was even slated for a Purple Rain interlude until Prince cut it in favor of the more aching “Father’s Song,” but his delicate phrasing and ballad piano would have marked a moment of naked vulnerability in an album and film that otherwise transmuted the artist’s insecurity into rave-up pop hits. “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” damn near passes for Prince doing Tom Waits, with hissed, gravelly vocals over lounge jazz piano as Prince lays down some hilariously lewd insinuations about a bad romance. It’s hard to imagine where he could have conceivably slotted this song on any of his official albums, but as the most complete song here after “17 Days,” it’s compelling to note how fully he could write out a song he ultimately abandoned. “Why the Butterflies” closes out with another fleshed-out number, though he jumps around piano chords at the top searching for the right starting point, at last settling on one key as he snaps his fingers along with his beat. It’s the most harrowing ballad here, stripped of the playfulness that dots the rest of the record with a plaintive number in which his soft moans of “Momma” are shot through with a tender sense of confusion and anxiety. Even before his religious conversion, Prince could be abstract in his lyrics, and here he sketches vague images of sadness and defeat, using the space between his vocals to convey a childlike sense of being overwhelmed rather than spell out his fears in words.

Recorded during one of Prince’s most voluminous gluts of prolific songwriting, this session is so striking in part because of how unassuming it is. The legend of Prince is so vast and unknowable that much of his golden period seems like an era of sustained genius in which classics were conceived and recorded on the spot. Piano & A Microphone 1983 does the service of illustrating that Prince, too, had to fiddle with his work, and that some tracks ended up on the cutting-room floor for quality reasons as much as the artist’s relentlessly sense of forward motion. This gives the listener a deeper appreciation of Prince, highlighting his capacity for shrewd self-judgement along with his savant-like ability to lay down ideas at a frenzied pace. Only time will tell what will tumble out of the artist’s vault next, but for the moment, it is refreshing to see his legacy grow with an object that clears away some of the shimmering mirage that defines him.

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