Album Review: Prince - Piano and A Microphone (1983)

I hate to toss around a phrase like ‘corpse humpery’ so carelessly, but I suppose it is the first thing that comes to mind after I pressed play on the recently exhumed and released Piano and A Microphone—a short collection of 35 year old demo recordings from Prince, and the first official posthumous release from his estate.

Prince Rogers Nelson was, more than likely, not expecting to die on an elevator in his own home—his vast compound known as Paisley Park—in April of 2016; in the wake of his death, it was discovered that none of his affairs were really in order—he had one living relative, his sister, and no will.

Less than two years after his death, Paisley Park—or at least parts of it, were open for public tours, and Nelson’s ashes, placed in an urn shaped like Paisley Park, are on display in the atrium of the complex. And while a bulk of the last two and a half years have been spent with his estate shuffling the rights to his vast catalog of work back and forth between different labels and distributors, there is the question of the literal bank vault of material Nelson left in Paisley Park—a vault that had to be drilled open since only he knew how to access it, in what I assume turned into something straight out of the first Die Hard movie.

With last year’s Purple Rain remaster and reissue having been completed before his passing but unreleased at the time of his death, Piano and A Microphone is the first taste of what was kept in Nelson’s archives of unreleased material. A sparse, nine track affair, the album runs slightly over a half hour, and seems like a bit of a strange selection to go with as the first thing to reveal that had been kept under wraps, since it was committed to tape in 1983.

Taking its title from the solo tours that Nelson had been embarking on right up until his death, Piano and A Microphone was found on a single cassette tape in the vault, and is presumed to be from a demo recording session, recorded all in one take—it runs the gamut from very brief, one minute sketches or ideas, songs that would never be fully developed and released, and aloof, lengthy, and sprawling rough versions of songs that Nelson would later record with The Revolution, or on his own—the collection’s opening piece, “17 Days,” is a Purple Rain-era b-side, “International Lover” is from the 1999 album, released the year prior to the recording of this cassette, and “Strange Relationship” would later turn up on Sign O’ The Times.

Is that my echo?”

That’s the first thing you hear on Piano and A Microphone—Nelson speaking to whomever is engineering the sessions for him; then he asks someone to turn the lights down, hoarsely whispers a funky “Good god,” and begins scatting a rhythm over the rollicking tickling of the piano, banging out a jaunty, faster tempo version of “17 Days”—almost a night and day difference between what was set to tape on this demo session when compared to the electrified scuzzy and slinky version recorded with The Revolution—one that finds Nelson funneling into the song into something exponentially more somber and pensive, even with all that funk backing it.

The first seven tracks of the collection are, more or less, a free wheeling medley—from the way it’s edited together, it’s tough to tell if Nelson really effortlessly segued into a 90 second sketch of “Purple Rain” right after “17 Days,” or if that’s what whoever gave this collection the green light wants us to believe.  

The very, very rough sketch of “Purple Rain,” sounds very little like the defining epic that would conclude the album of the same name—musically, there are hints of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” in it—so it makes sense that Nelson would slide into a short bit of that very song; he would later go on to cover it properly on One Nite Alone, a self-released effort from 2002 (it would also be featured on a Mitchell tribute album in 2007.)

There is, again, a bit of an awkward transition between his short inclusion of “A Case of You,” and the traditional spiritual “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” which Nelson stretches out to a sprawling five minutes, before switching gears and picking the pacing back up with “Strange Relationship”—a far cry from nearly whimsical instrumentation that the song would adopt in the Sign O’ The Times version of the song.  

The 1999 version of “International Lover” is an electro-slow dance, unfolding slowly over the course of six and a half minutes, with Nelson pleading the lyrics in his higher, on the verge of becoming unhinged, sexually charged range. With the song having been released on an album the previous year, I am a little confused about why he felt compelled to perform a stripped down arrangement of it for this demo session—cutting the song’s length in half, the version of “International Lover” found on Piano and A Microphone s not almost unrecognizable in comparison, but it does lose some of the slithering, synth-heavy charm of the original; here, it comes off a little like a lounge singer’s rendition.

“Wednesday,” a short, two-minute sketch, is another song originally intended for Purple Rain, and according to various Prince resources on the internet, a studio version does exist, and was included in an early configuration of the album’s track list, but was replaced with “Darling Nikki.”

Here, Nelson seems slightly unfocused on the vocals—the lyrics are incredibly dark (“Saturday night I called you—you weren’t even home. Needed someone to talk to—hate it when I’m all alone, contemplating suicide from 12 o’clock until two”) and he’s much more focused on his impressive command of the piano, and his ability to shift from something somber and emotional, to something steeped in funk.

“Wednesday” also may end somewhat abruptly—or at least prematurely, as Nelson is informed that the A side of his cassette is nearly over, and asks his engineer to flip it over—the B side begins with the strange, lively funk of “Cold Coffee and Cocaine,” an unreleased song that is speculated to have possibly been put together with the intention of passing on to Morris Day and The Time—or, at least, that is what a Prince specific wiki claims, because Nelson sings in a bit of a caricature—what they call his “Jamie Starr” persona.

Piano and A Microphone concludes with another lengthy, possibly improvised, and moderately funky selection—“Why The Butterflies.” Musically, even for a demo, it’s very skeletal, with Nelson seemingly directing his attention toward figuring out the song’s hypnotic and alluring rhythm, with the actual progression of chords not so much taking a back seat, but also not the primary focus of the song. The lyrics, too—what few there are, seem to be used as placeholders, with Nelson repeating variations of the same general phrase throughout the song.

In the end, Nelson lets the song get away from him—perhaps he’s grown tired from the recording session, or bored, or can’t take this idea any further, but he proceeds to bang out the final few chords to the song, speeding up the rhythm slightly, before bringing the song to a rushed conclusion.

Piano and A Microphone isn’t a bad album—but I guess I should stop right there; it’s not even really an album is it? There’s probably a reason that Nelson tucked this cassette away for over 30 years in his personal archives—maybe only using it as a point of reference later on, but more than likely, forgetting that it existed. And it makes you wonder, how many other sparse and loose demo sessions on decaying cassette tapes were found in the Prince vault? Is this the kind of thing we’re going to be slowly fed as executives and executors comb their way through his hoard of unreleased material?

At its core, Piano and A Microphone appeals to the Prince completest—and borders on being a total cash grab. Prince Rogers Nelson never intended for anyone to hear this tape—but he also probably would never intended for his home to be open to the public as some kind of tourist destination in the wake of his death. This collection is interesting, sure, but it is simply a snapshot of an artist at work—it’s not the kind of thing that you can put on and enjoy in its entirety.

There is a fragile, haunted quality to it, but that is maybe simply because of the context. There’s no way to remaster something that is on a cassette tape as all one track, so you hear every warble and bit of distortion in the recording, and the sparse, skeletal nature of this material gives it a certain ghostly characteristic—but maybe that’s because you want to imagine Prince speaking to us from beyond the 3D printed urn.

Piano and A Microphone (1983) is out now on CD and vinyl, via Prince's favorite major label to work with, Warner Brothers.