After Prince Rogers Nelson died in 2016, one of the biggest questions posed was what would happen with his archives. Over the course of his nearly forty year career, Prince built a reputation for being both a perfectionist and extremely prolific, purportedly writing and recording one to two songs a day every day for decades, many of them fully fleshed out and finished. It’s no exaggeration, either; in the 1990s whilst on strike from his record label, he prepared and released nearly a dozen albums that were taken directly from his vault. That he was a perfectionist only adds to the allure of it all, as perfectly fine songs would be unceremoniously scrapped simply because he couldn’t get it to sound like the song he heard in his head. Piano And A Microphone 1983 is the first major dive into the Prince archives, a trip back in time to before he launched into the superstar stratosphere.
For these recordings, he’s by himself on the piano and recording what are essentially demos. He had yet to start working on Purple Rain, the movie that would make him a household name, and there isn’t really much of a hint that it’s coming, either. The version found here isn’t really much more than him tinkering with only a sliver of the first lines of the first verse for 90 seconds before drifting into equally brief take on Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You.” It’s very beautiful, and while seven of the nine songs found here feature in what is essentially him playing around for twenty minutes—the vinyl edition of Piano presents them in one continuous medley–it’s less revelatory as it is simply a gorgeous performance from his wandering mind. Included in this medley is an early version of Sign O’ The Times number, ”Strange Relationship,” and a new version of “International Lover,” taken from his most recent release at the time, 1999. The performance of the former is tentative—you get the sense that you can feel Prince is still chipping away at it––while his take on the latter is much more impressionistic than the album version.
The handful of completed numbers here are an interesting mix; future b-side “17 Days” is explored at the beginning of the medley, a very pretty jazz rumination, in the same can be said of his take on Negro spiritual “Mary Weep For Me.” On the unreleased “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” Prince offers up a delightful scat singing style that sounds like he is imitating Tom Waits, and while there isn’t really that much to this song, it is fun to listen to. The same can also be said for the concluding “Why The Butterflies,” a piano ballad that is pretty enough, but in this state feels quite undercooked and somewhat by the books for his balladry at the time. It’s the sort of song one would love to hear a more complete and finished version of––provided the Prince perfectionism didn’t lead him to abandon it.
Although this first volley into the vault isn’t exactly new– –this mysterious session first appeared in the bootleg market nearly three decades ago––it certainly marks an exciting and enjoyable little glimpse into a musical legend’s treasure trove of unheard recordings. Stripped down to just his voice and piano, Piano And A Microphone 1983 provides an intimate look at one of the greatest creative minds of the 1980s
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