Thursday, August 30, 2012

Prince: For You (1978)

Before Prince Rogers Nelson turned 20 years old, he cut his teeth in a funk group where he soon eclipsed peer and mentor alike, got himself an astonishingly generous record deal from a major label (including publishing rights for all his work), and released his solo debut with the proud boast of having been entirely "produced, arranged, composed and performed" by its maker. Never mind the misleading half-truths of that claim: For You's artistic credit sent a message of intent and announced a musician of ambition and creative drive. Indeed, Prince may well have been less satisfied with the impressiveness of his accomplishments at such a young age than he was irritated by the two interminable years it took to turn his demo into a full-fledged, official product.

Adding to the sense of For You as more an announcement of what was to come, the opening title track unfurls as a layered a cappella choir of Prince's cooing vocals soothingly telling the listener, "All of this and more is for you./With love, sincerity, and deepest care,/My life with you I share." To call this a precursor to Prince's musical openness would be inaccurate, as even at his most soulful and vulnerable, Prince throws up emotional walls to shield himself. Nevertheless, its quasi-spiritual overtones, especially when juxtaposed with the sex-drenched disco that dominates the rest of the record, offer an insight into dialectical forces that would soon propel Prince to superstardom.

But not here. The problem is not instantly apparent: For You quickly moves from its title track to "In Love," its bubbling synths and come-hither falsettos clearly linked to the previous song but worlds removed in execution. The unexpectedly logical progression from saint to sinner, linked through arrangement and effeminate vocals, hints at Prince's future embodiment of a gender- and race-bending Madonna/whore complex that took Elvis' mix of flagrant sexuality and gospel purity and shattered it into a million pieces. Better still is "Soft and Wet," perhaps the most "Prince" song of the pre-Dirty Mind era. On it, the not-yet-Purple One revs up the synths of "In Love" into staccato, sleazy bursts of cyber funk as an air of hunger creeps into the vocals and such lines as "All I wanna hear is your sweet love sighs." Though still tethered to en vogue disco sounds rather than simultaneously more old-fashioned and futuristic like Prince's best work, "Soft and Wet" is the best indication on the record of where the artist would go.

Scattered among the rest of the album are a few other gems. "Just as Long as We're Together" and the closing "I'm Yours" show off Prince's ability to craft a one-man jam, be it the former's robotic propulsion or the latter's layering of traditional instruments into a solo showcase. "Baby," on the other hand, demonstrates how he could take well-worn lyrical territory and give it an unexpected twist. In this case, he sings about having a child out of wedlock with his lover, traversing the fears of financial hardship and unwanted maturity such an event will bring. Yet there is also positivity and hope in the song, especially in the way that Prince offers to stand by his woman no matter her decision. Further down the road, Prince would turn more to didacticism in serious lyrical matters, but there is a refreshing, humble generosity here that would all too rarely be seen again.

Yet none of these songs has the instant classic feel of tunes the artist would start churning out regularly in just a few years. To judge these songs by what connection they have to later work may seem unfair, but these are works of potential, not fully realized pieces of songcraft. They are reasons to keep listening to see how this new talent develops, not reasons to become a fan. Saddled with two other listless ballads ("Crazy You" and "So Blue") and a mid-tempo dance track that never gives off enough energy to get someone on the floor ("My Love is Forever"), For You does not match the braggadocio of its nearly solo construction. Unlike any Prince record before the '90s, it sounds hopelessly locked into current musical trends rather than rooted deeper and searching outward for new sounds. The man who would redefine pop, funk and R&B here offers nothing more than a decently promising disco record that sounds conventional at a time when the genre was being stretched and redefined on a regular basis. Ironically, its singular sonic focus may be the biggest flaw, for Prince operates best when he can bounce conflicting sounds and ideas off the wall. It is strange to feel deflated by a 20-year-old's debut on the grounds of it being well-honed and contemporary, but then, nothing is ever sensible when it comes to Prince.

No comments:

Post a Comment