Prince’s people have finally opened his famous Vault for the first of surely a long line of posthumous releases. But, as Piers Barber writes, this first effort – an intimate, tantalising stripped back collection, is a compelling initial choice.
Here it is, then: the first posthumous Prince album, and the first collection of unreleased songs from the artist’s mythical, eulogized and perhaps – who knows? – overhyped ‘Vault’ at Paisley Park.
It’s a smart choice for such a landmark. Piano & A Microphone 1983 is comprised of nine tracks of Prince at his piano, recorded in one continuous take while the artist was rehearsing at his home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota – and all just a year before the release of Purple Rain would catapult him to superstardom.
Apparently found as a cassette tape, the album’s stripped back simplicity offers an enticing, almost voyeuristic window into the artist’s inner workings. At the same time, it smartly avoids the release of any dud fully-formed tracks that might threaten any long-term legacy. In fact, the tantalising timing of the album’s recording – moments before several years of outstanding creative success – make listening in on such an intimate session all the more appealing.
And yes, this is an enthralling, at points rather magical glimpse into Prince’s artistic process. The image it produces is thrillingly evocative – there he is, the secretive artist in a home studio, lights dimmed (“turn the lights low” he can be heard asking at the start), running through a diverse range of styles: jazz, blues, funk and ballad; tracks that are old, new and as-yet-unformed.
It’s a further reminder of how Prince, a multi-instrumentalist most easily associated with the guitar, was also a brilliant pianist, an instrument he dedicated substantial chunks of his live shows, especially near the end of his career. Here he is on top form: beatboxing, tapping, crooning and snarling – there’s never any need for a full band.
Take ‘Cold Coffee and Cocaine’ (“All I get, / Is this cup of cold coffee and cocaine”), one of the few completely new songs to appear on the record: all rhythmic clanking and characterful voice imitation. It’s a complete contrast ‘Wednesday’, one of the others, which demonstrates an intensely emotional minimalism that matches the song’s intense lyrics about suicide.
Elsewhere we hear an extended, jazzed-up ’17 Days’ and a tantalising work-in-progress sketch of ‘Purple Rain’, which segues into an intensely emotional off Joni Mitchell’s brilliant ‘A Case of You’, one of Prince’s favourite songs. The highlight here is ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, a gospel staple originally conceived during the American Civil War, which is delivered with astonishing emotion and pitch-perfect timing.
The posthumous release is a slippery slope, especially when dealing with such a prolific artist with a huge collection of music ready and waiting to be flaunted to an adoring public (Prince himself, let’s be honest, didn’t hold back from releasing some average stuff). But Piano & A Microphone hits the right spot: unknown, intimate, and a fascinating glimpse on the cusp of something historic. It’s a triumph.