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Quality Time with Prince’s Around the World In A Day

November 9, 2009

One would have to really work to find a popular music artist with an output so varied, superb and significant as the production that Prince Rogers Nelson gave us in the ten years from 1980 through 1989.  Using his two 1970’s releases as mere tune ups, Prince began the Eighties with a classic album, Dirty Mind.  He followed up with the made-to-offend Controversy, which was one of his two weak albums of the decade.  His second classic, the amazing 1999, was released in 1983 and then followed the next year by another stellar album, the one we all know and love, Purple Rain.  In 1985, he dropped Around the World In A Day followed in 1986 by the soundtrack to his second foray into filmmaking, Parade.  1987 saw the release of Prince’s magnum opus and all-around finest work, Sign ‘O The Times and the non-release of his most mysterious joint The Black Album.  Prince finished out the decade with the under-appreciated Lovesexy and the over-hyped Batman soundtrack, which tied Controversy as the low-point of his 80’s output.

Looking back on it now, I think the argument is easily made that few artists not called The Beatles can boast of such a prolific and amazing ten year run.  Forget the sales numbers, just look at the variety of sounds, beginning with Minneapolis funk to rock to blues to classical to psychedelia–say what you want but this level of output was rarely achieved prior to Prince and I’m not sure that it’s been achieved since.

Today, I’d like to take a deeper look into the album that is often forgotten when discussing Prince’s body of work, Around the World In A Day.  I’m not here to argue that this is his greatest or even his most interesting album.  But it does hold personal significance for me as it was the first Prince album I ever owned.  I had heard most of Purple Rain, but never really cared to own any of his music until I heard “Pop Life” on the radio.  I was immediately drawn to that track–here was arguably the biggest pop star in the world with the audacity to make fun of his fame in his own song!  That, and hearing the bass line pop right out of the speaker sent me straight to the Record Bar in Bowling Green, Kentucky to find out what this cat was all about.

What I discovered was that this cat was about some weird stuff.  I had little to no background in Prince’s past work, so I just figured I’d hear some more stuff that sounded like “Pop Life”.  I was therefore a little disconcerted with the Indian whistle and general oddness of the title-track, but after a few listens I loved it.  The second song, “Paisley Park” was an absolute joy for me on a number of levels.  First, it’s just a terrific mid-tempo pop song with a Beatles-y chorus that lets you know that “Paisley Park is in your heart.”  Second, it introduced me to the greatest instrument that the multi-instrumental Prince ever played:  the finger cymbal.  All of my favorite Prince songs employ the finger cymbal somewhere within their structure and I maintain that this is one of the most under-utilized instruments in all of rock music.

The final and most important level on which I loved the song “Paisley Park” gets to the heart of why I love Prince’s music overall.  At it’s core, “Paisley Park” is a mission statement, much like “All You Need Is Love” was for the Beatles (or at least John Lennon).  “Paisley Park” is where Prince is most at home, literally and musically.  The man makes sweet pop music and no song he’s ever made is any sweeter or “poppier” than this song.  Couple this with the stark way in which Prince let us all into his inner being to see the contradictions therein and you have a powerful musical cocktail.  Oh, yeah and the guy was one amazing musician.

“Condition of the Heart” is one of the best ballads ever written.  Period.  It breaks my heart when I read about this song in anything less than superlative terms, which is quite often.  Allow me to make my case.  “Condition” was the first song in the catalog where Prince put his skills as a piano player out so starkly for the listener.  The rolling piano improvisation at the beginning of the song contrasts with a synthesized organ improv for about the first minute, until the organ realizes its proper place and takes a backing role.  The piano then anchors the rest of the song along with some fine finger cymbal work.  The verse showcases a heavy jazz influence and the trademark falsetto telling the story of lost lovers as vocals layer upon themselves until the first choral crescendo, where Prince’s skill as a vocal arranger is shown in all it’s glory.  If anyone can find me a more beautiful harmony that the “Ohhh”s in the chorus, I’ll pay you good money.  In short, the rest of this album could feature variations on dog whistling and it would still be significant to me just for the stark beauty of this song.

The album’s major hit, “Raspberry Beret” follows, proving that Prince has thrown away more amazing pop songs than most artists will ever write.  Honestly, “Tambourine” and “America” were throwaways for me, and I always hit the fast forward button when they came up on the tape.  I addressed “Pop Life” earlier, so let’s move into the then-obligatory gospel tune, “The Ladder”.  It seems that Prince threw in one of these types of songs in all his mid-Eighties albums (see “Purple Rain”, “The Cross”) but don’t let that fool you.  “The Ladder” is a standout, and not just because it brings you the first recognizable contribution from the Revolution in the form of Lisa and Wendy’s background vocals.  The song itself slowly builds into an all-out gospel fervor that is best encompassed in future NPG-er Eric Leeds’ amazing saxophone work.  The track for me again shows Prince’s breadth as an artist and demonstrates that he can bust out some soul when he feels the need. 

While “The Ladder” embodies Prince’s desire for spirituality, the album’s closer “Temptation” deals with the devil on his other shoulder.  Prince took a lot of flak in the 80’s for his sexually graphic material, but a closer look reveals a man who freely admits he has demons and puts them out there for the world to see.  In all honesty, “Temptation” is not a great song, but the juxtaposition of it with “The Ladder” is the embodiment of the complexity within the man and it stands in stark contrast to our own society’s attempts to pretend that this complexity doesn’t exist within us all.

My final point to establish the greatness of this album is to look at it within the context of Prince’s overall career.  Following on the heels of his most commercially accessible album, there’s no question that Around the World In A Day is meant to send a message.  Basically, it tells the corporate music world that Prince don’t need your money or your hype.  At the height of his label influence, he convinced Warner Bros. to release the record without any publicity or press and he resisted the propensity to turn every song into a single.  Many correctly point to this album as the place where Prince starts to slip from mega-stardom, but they fail to recognize that by putting this album out Prince consciously chose to start his decline.  Anyone who thinks that Prince expected commercial success with Around is fooling themselves.  The man knew exactly what he was doing, although in all honesty I think he underestimated how far he had alienated his audience after this and subsequent records.  I guess by now you’ve figured out that I kinda like this album and I highly recommend it to all the finger-cymbal enthusiasts out there.  Later!

  1. davis permalink
    November 29, 2009 3:12 am

    Couldn’t agree more! But Tambourine is outa site dude! And if yr into finger cymbals Tambourine is the finger cymbaliest track on the record. Good to see this record get some props.

    • Caleb permalink
      December 1, 2009 9:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Davis. While I agree that “Tambourine” has more finger cymbal that should be allowed on wax, it’s the rest of the song that just doesn’t get it for me. But I respect anyone who digs that track, you’ve got better ears than I do!

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