“The average critic never recognizes an achievement when it happens. He explains it after it has become respectable.”
Who do you think of when you hear the phrase “King of Pop”? Michael Jackson, naturally. After all, though his work with producer Quincy Jones was always stellar, it was his abilities as an innovative and daring performer that brought his name into the spotlight. Madonna, it could be argued, is the Queen of Pop, always choosing flavor-of-the-moment producers to make sure that she’s not only relevant to the current pop crowd, but credible as well. Yet neither the King nor Queen could hold a candle to the talents of Prince Rogers Nelson, a.k.a. His Royal Badness, a.k.a. Weird Symbol Guy, a.k.a. just Prince.
Prince, too, could dazzle during a live show while manipulating the media (remember that free album-release event that happened in Britain just a few months ago?), but unlike MJ and Madge, Prince was in absolute control of his musical output from Day One: he wrote every song, played nearly every instrument, and produced every single track by his lonesome. He delivered messages both secular and sexual, living an enigmatic existence that was played out more in the history books than in the tabloids, but ask an average fan what Prince’s personal life is like, and even the most ardent of the Purple One’s fans will draw blank faces.
Brian Morton’s Prince: A Thief in the Temple is the latest in a very long line of Prince biographies, and even then it’s not a conventional biography. Thief (taking its title from one of the less-appalling songs from the disastrous Graffiti Bridge soundtrack) is ultimately more of a character study than anything else, hitting on conventional topics that range from Prince’s upbringing and early years (particularly his debt to producer Chris Moon) to some of his more bizarre behaviors later on (particularly the way he handled the death of his infant son with the media, but more on that later). A majority of the book, however, is spent on understanding the man through his music, and Morton’s analytical dissections are both a gift and a curse. What starts out as an interesting profile on a blazing young prodigy soon devolves into nothing more than a critical sessionography.
Between 1980 and 1987, Prince released some of the greatest pop albums of all-time, with each one building upon the sound of the last: Dirty Mind begat 1999 which birthed Purple Rain which lead to Parade and eventually to his must-own masterpiece Sign ‘O’ The Times. Yet, as Morton points out, the sheer quantity of Prince’s output—which includes production work for Vanity 6 and The Time as well as writing credits for Kate Bush and the Bangles—makes for easy analysis. While Michael Jackson’s own eccentricities wound up getting the best of him in the long run, Prince channeled his femininity and eclecticism through multiple personalities, whether it be Camille (his female persona that evolved from his own sped-up voice tracks), Jamie Starr (his moonlighting producer personae), or the “evil” Spooky Electric (as heard on the crazed quasi-religious album Lovesexy). Much is made of Prince’s multiple female backup singers throughout the years, though aside from Wendy & Lisa (you know, the ones who “co-wrote” the song “Purple Rain” in Purple Rain?), their significance is substantially overplayed.
Part of Prince’s allure stems from his own self-imposed mystique, rarely granting interviews and keeping his private life a secret. During a Dick Clark interview on American Bandstand early in his career, Clark asked the Purple One how long he’d been performing, to which Prince (in)famously did nothing more than hold up four fingers without saying a word. When it comes to Prince’s public behavior, Morton is more speculative than explanatory, often doing nothing more than describing his actions and letting the reader judge for themselves:
In November 1996, just before the launch of a triple set significantly called Emancipation, Mayte gave birth to a premature baby boy. Gregory was fated never to find gold chains in the dust. The infant was diagnosed as having a medical condition known as acrocephalosyndactyly, more commonly known as Pfeiffer’s syndrome or ‘clover-leaf syndrome’ after a distinctive deformation of the skull. In what has to be seen as an emancipation for a child fated never to see, hear, taste, or smile, the boy died a fortnight later, after his life support system was switched off. To everyone’s astonishment, Prince went ahead with release plans for the new album, threw a lavish party and fulfilled video and press commitments. The rumour mill suggest that the baby’s uterine heartbeat could be heard on Emancipation. [...] There were more surprises to come. On Oprah, he denied that there had been anything wrong with the child. On a slightly later occasion, three weeks after the boy’s death, Prince told assembled journalists that he was ‘enjoying fatherhood’.
While Morton never offers definitive explanations for his public actions, he is more than happy to be the end-all and be-all when it comes to Prince’s musical output. Having just come off of working on the latest edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz, it should come as no surprise that he references a majority of Prince’s work with that of some jazz-greats, most notably Miles Davis. Though Morton can successfully argue that Prince’s secular fascination is akin to that of John Coltrane’s on A Love Supreme (where God isn’t directly cited—just a “being” above), comparing the sprawling Sign ‘O’ the Times to Davis’ 1972 fusion album On the Corner is a bit of a stretch (if On the Corner is comparable to anything in Prince’s catalog, then it’s akin to the insular psychedelic of Around the World in a Day). Even with Davis’ expansive back catalog, Morton’s references will likely be lost on a majority of Purple Rain converts. Even if a bit too authoritative, Morton shines most when works on analyzing the albums in question.
Yet even with such laser-guided song-by-song focus on O(+>‘s career, it’s really hard to determine exactly who Morton is writing for. For one, it’s obvious that casual fans need not apply (as you’ll be drawing blanks when he’s referencing tracks from Prince’s infamous contract-ending LP Come), and as mentioned before, even hardcore Prince followers may still get a little confused with Morton’s constant jazz references. If anything, he seems to be catering to fellow critics that just happen to have a likewise Prince fascination, using five-dollar words to try and pass as intellectual critique when an honest-to-goodness analysis will speak in droves. When Morton does provide analysis, it’s usually excellent, though sometimes he misses the big picture (particularly with the triple-disc Emancipation, where he neglects to mention that the entire second disc is a tour through his marriage with then-wife Mayte—an arc that would’ve substantially helped in his discussion of their unique union). Additionally, for being the most up-to-date Prince bio in existence, his “comeback” albums Musicology and 3121 are giving nothing more than a passing glance, as if his commercial comeback that’s still going on is merely an afterword in his career, as opposed to a second chapter of it.
Ultimately, A Thief in the Temple is read for the devout only. There are some insights and tales that are certainly welcome (and Morton absolutely nails the reason why Prince’s long-delayed Black Album was greeted with such hostility when it finally did come out), and—at times—Morton can be quite funny. Yet, as it stands, A Thief in the Temple cannot possibly be seen as “the” definitive Prince biography. It will merely wind up as a placeholder in the long line of Prince books that have come before and those that will inevitably follow. Yet Morton need not worry. After all, “All the Critics Love U in New York” ...