Prince’s ‘Piano and a Microphone 1983’ Offers an Intimate, Barebones Look Into His Genius

Some artists make their name on being multi-instrumentalists, and it’s easy to get caught up in that, envisioning them as a sort of jack of all trades. Sure, they deserve credit for the versatility, but what often gets lost in the mist is the pure commitment to craft that really shows itself when you’re left with just a couple instruments at hand. Prince’s posthumous album, “Piano and a Microphophone 1983” is a shocking recording, in how much it shows an absolute genius at work.

First thing that strikes is the intricacy of the piano playing. There has been a total dumbing down of popular music over the course of the last few decades, and a recording like this, with all its virtuosity, is a shining example of, say, something that could have been. Sure, minimalism has its appeal, but we have neglected so much of our musical heritage that it’s truly sad. And with this album, you have Prince just sitting at the piano, and playing with such a fluidity, composure, and inspiration that it will make you stop in your tracks. Listening to this album is like getting a special inside glimpse into a rich musical history very much lost. It’s a very intimate recording, obvious from the first track, with Prince asking, “Is that my echo?” and then just bursting out into such decadent music that defies the causality of his manner. We’re used to Prince with soaring guitars and all the works. This album, cutting out the fat, gives a portrait that really puts you firsthand with the artist, and reveals a talent in its purest and most chilling degree.

There is an improvisational element to this, as sitting down at the piano allows for a certain whimsy, giving you a glimpse of the songs in their full grandeur, unrestricted by production limits. A song like “Purple Rain,” for example, is brought into an entirely different light. It’s a different song altogether, conjuring a whole new classical romance with the expressive piano, and the whimsical vocal trajectories. In “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Prince seems like he’s in a seance of sorts — such is the extremity of the passion expressed. This is possibly the most “soulful” of the songs on the record, with Prince going full gospel in a way that comes across as more genuine and unaffected than most artists who put on such theatrics. It sounds, at parts, almost like the work of Diamanda Galas, in the sense that it’s so free and and adventurous that it comes across as rather avant-garde. “Strange Relationship” ‘has a moment with Prince just calling out “Huh,” in a representative moment of what makes a solo performance so exciting, in the spontaneity that it allows. He gets almost Tom Jones-ey with his breathy vocals, and really goes to town with the piano. Upon listening, you can’t help but notice that this music seems to exude from him with such a natural momentum that is truly uncanny. It’s the work of someone with the type of inspiration that very few, if any others, have.

“International Lover” finds Prince really tapping into his falsetto, to the point that you would think it’s a woman singing. He even sort of beat-boxes for a moment. It’s the sound of someone totally enraptured, with a freeness of instinct that is absolutely unique. “Cold Coffee and Cocaine” is quite a funny song, and Prince delivers it appropriately tongue-in-cheek, putting on a funny voice, making for a rather hilarious performance, but still turning out a great tune.

All in all, this is an album that will likely make you gasp and pause for thought because of how much unbelievable talent it demonstrates. In fact, it does so, arguably, more than Prince’s other work, because stripped of the grand production and all, and allowed the intimacy of a solo performance, you get a look into the real, artistic impulse in real time, and what you get is something truly astounding.

Piano and a Microphone 1983” is available Sept. 14 on Apple Music.