Evoke the name Prince and the responses are nearly immediate … and obvious.
Fans of the legendary artist (it still feels wrong to call him “late”) will quickly talk up his classic albums like 1999, Purple Rain, or Controversy. A few others will throw in Sign O the Times or Lovesexy for good measure. From there, references taper off, as though Prince’s career ended around 1988. I can’t prove it, but I blame commercial radio.
When asked, I name Sign O the Times as my favorite overall Prince album. Until today. I’ve changed my mind. Because pound for pound, The Gold Experience gives you everything those other records do, and perhaps a bit more.
When Prince changed his name to that unpronounceable symbol in the early 90’s, many assumed he’d gone ’round the bend, as it were, and his best work now lay behind him. But inside Gold‘s packaging is a terrific essay from Jim Walsh, then the music critic for the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press. He suggested another theory: the symbol was not a mere name change. It was a chance for Prince to shed himself of the expectations that came with his name. Upon hearing this album, that theory makes perfect sense.
In the studio, Prince was for the most part a self-contained unit. There were glorious moments with The Revolution on Purple Rain and with the New Power Generation on Diamonds and Pearls. But a man capable of playing 27 instruments probably feels compelled to play them all in the studio, which doesn’t leave much room for a band. To that, I say the same thing I might say to Todd Rundgren, Lenny Kravitz, or Adrian Belew: just because you can play everything doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Prince seemed to have picked up on that with The Gold Experience. No doubt he did some of the tunes on his own, but the album’s best songs came from Prince fronting a band in the studio. Michael B. (drums), Sonny T. (bass), Tommy Barbarella (keyboards), Mr. Hayes (keyboards), and Mayte (backing vocals) allowed their leader to focus on being the frontman/guitarist in a kick-ass rock/funk/soul band. Better still, many of the tracks sound like they were recorded live, where musical chemistry is at its very best.
Most early Prince albums — while certainly brilliant — sound like the studio where they were recorded. The final mix is right on top of you. Groovy though it may be, there’s not much room to breathe. You hear the instruments, but not much else. With Gold, you hear more than the instruments. You can actually hear the room! The sound is allowed to make its way out into the atmosphere and given a moment to resonate. That’s what live music does best. It’s a complete … well, experience!
This album has everything any of Prince’s classic contain. Songs of empowerment (“P Control,” which is the polar opposite of what it appears to be on the surface), smoldering slow jams (“Shhh”), psychedelic pop (“Dolphin”), hardcore funk (“Now”), songs of seduction (“Eye Hate U”), declarative anthems (“Gold”), and everything in between. To say nothing of one of his hardest rockers in “Endorphinmachine,” one of my all-time favorite tracks.
What sets these songs apart is their live feel, making Gold seem more like a concert than an album. No doubt Prince was a bit of a control freak (anyone with that kind of talent has to be), so it can’t be easy to let the sound in your head be interpreted by others, who will NEVER play it exactly as you conceived it. If you’re lucky, though, you’ll get something better. That, I believe, is what happened here. These songs sound like a blast to play!
If there’s a better combination than great songs played live by a band in the perfect room, I don’t know what it is. I do know that’s precisely what’s happening on this album. Why it never achieved the classic stature of those other albums is beyond me.
Prince fans and non-fans alike unfamiliar with The Gold Experience owe it to yourselves to go back and discover (or re-discover) this absolute classic. His Purple Majesty was truly showered with …
Well, you know.
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