Sleeve notes

Records are more fun when you can see them.

I am in the process of moving house, again. Ever since university, this has involved lugging around huge piles of records to which I rarely listen; I haven't even any idea what the vast majority of them are. I'm thinking of getting rid of most of them. Curb your gasps - I won't be disposing of my 180-gram version of Nina Nastasia's On Leaving, but there has to be a cull: my arms hurt.

The main downside to this is that I'll miss the sleeves. I wander around record shops looking at all the bright colours, moody photos, funny shapes, sultry portraits and bad haircuts, wondering what these albums sound like. On many occasions, I have spent my earnings on these treasures only to return home to discover that I already owned them as faceless computer files.

So I thought I'd look up a few of my favourite new faceless albums. I'll now describe some of them to you, so you'll know what to look for when you're out shopping. On the first, there's a black-and-white drawing of a girl sleeping on a lion. This image doesn't relate well at all with the music inside. The band is called the Finches and their album On Golden Hill (Ulrike Records) is a very pretty and dreamy record that does, indeed, promote the joys of sleep, yet nowhere in the music is there a sense of the kind of anxiety one would feel should one try to take a nap on one of nature's most dangerous creatures. The album is simple and short but very sweet. I think a lion would enjoy it. And, come to think of it, I could imagine trotting around on a lion's back listening to this, perhaps gently stroking its mane.

The Babies have a great new album out. It is also called The Babies (Shrimper) and the sleeve is a rather chaotic thing: lots of junk displayed on a wall, postcards of the American wilderness, religious iconography, fairy lights and home-made models of pyramids. The Babies is a desperate, lost and tired-sounding record, but in the coolest possible fashion: it's full of great, lazy-sounding pop songs. It is also the perfect record to run away to, if anyone is considering that.

Next, a photograph of five serious-looking men sitting outside with a menacing-looking dog, all staring straight at the camera and, consequently, at you, almost daring you to listen to the album. It's called Mortika - Recordings from a Greek Underworld (Mississippi), a compilation of 21 underground Greek folk songs about drugs, sex, crime, poverty and heartbreak. I don't speak Greek, which makes it impossible for me to be shocked by the stories told in these songs.

What I am left with is a series of very innocent, lovable and scratchy-sounding archive recordings that could quite easily be about hugging your mum, eating sweets or doing charity work. Song titles such as "Hash Smoking Chicks" are the only indication that this might not be the case. Many of them are very suitable for dancing along to, but my favourites are those that are so worn that, at times, you can barely hear anything. They fade in and out as though the music is being played from another building and snippets of it keep managing to drift in through your open window. Bliss. l

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This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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