“4 letter words are seldom heard with such dignity and bite”

The purchase of a Prince album was an admission of privilege. Too young to appreciate 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign ‘O’ the Times except as home bases of singles I really liked (the Purple Rain top ten quartet, “Kiss,” and “U Got The Look” I remember most), I was nevertheless conscious of his pedigree, his immense prestige. In the summer of 1990 I became an ardent consumer: of magazines, old 45’s, cassette singles, and Peter Murphy albums. I don’t remember where I first heard “Thieves in the Temple,” but the arrangement –  synthesized chinoiserie, massed overdubbed Rogers Nelson screeching “Love come in a hurry” – lived up to my idea of the Prince whom critics adored. An important distinction to a young music fan reckoning with the rock press, I might add. Blowing most of my allowance on the Graffiti Bridge tape — priced double what I usually paid —  damn sure signified. So did the sleeve art, adorned with esoteric images from its companion film (a shot of what looked like an unusually long-fingered and long-nailed male hand frightened me).

No one mentions Graffiti Bridge much; even at the time Entertainment Weekly‘s ludicrous review was the only ecstatic one. But if like me you were just discovering the little sylph’s work the “traditional” pleasures of songs like “Can’t Stop This Feelin’ I Got” did a lot to dispel the notion that “Batdance” was just a sonically adventurous variant on late eighties R&B of the L.A. Reid and Babyface variety; no “real” drums, sure, but a traditional time signature with guitars and a voice that revealed little but its own exuberance at flexing its mastery of form. Something rote about the flexing, for sure: the title track and “Still Would Stand All Time” whimpered like other windbag manifestos I poo-pooed at the time like “Let It Be” or “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” (maybe I owe Prince for my latent suspicion). And “New Power Generation” provided the moniker to the most obnoxious of his hand-picked studio bands.  The deepest — most replayable — dollops of fun were the electro-funk numbers in which he articulated an indefensible metaphor or choreographed in aural terms a scenario as abstruse as Graffiti Bridge the film itself: “Elephants and Flowers,” complete with no-nonsense chorus (“Strip down!”) and Adrian Belew-esque guitar squeals; “Tick, Tick, Bang,” replete with more weird multitracked vocals; and the languid, slightly frightening “Joy in Repetition,” which can’t decide whether to explode into “Purple Rain”-style power ballad catharsis or mumble minor-key gnomic truths like what I’d later hear in “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

The collaborations didn’t do much for me —  except for “Release It,” The Time songs don’t pulverize like that summer’s pop comeback “Jerk Out” did; they sounded tentative, repressed, like George Harrison walking into a studio expecting to play with Paul McCartney. The Aretha-by-numbers of “Melody Cool” shows how much Prince liked Mavis Staples. “We Can Funk” shows how much he believes in George Clinton as an electric spanker of war babies even when the song doesn’t give the Atomic Dog much to spank (it’s a Sign ‘O’ the Times reject). “Round and Round,” however, has aged real well: that the teenaged Tevin Campbell doesn’t understand what kind of libretto Prince handed him helps its weirdness quotient. Sung by Campbell, “Nothin’ comes from dreamers from dreams”  and “we can talk all we want 2 but the world still goes round and round” don’t resolve themselves into pretty maxims; they’re the slightly deranged half-truths that a Stevie Wonder wannabe might sing to get praised for wisdom (the percolating electro backdrop pushes him into eschewing wisdom anyway).

Judging whether Graffiti Bridge has aged well is beside the point: the Frankenstein nature of Prince recordings rivals the Stones’. But if your town still boasts a used CD shop, you’ll likely find a cheap used copy. Only Stevie Nicks designed sleeve art this exquisitely aimed at the faithful.

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