It’s too bad Chrissie Hynde closed VegiTerranean in 2011. Her Akron, Ohio vegan eatery would have been the perfect spot for her buddy Morrissey and his fellow herbivore Prince—just a 12-hour motorcycle ride away in Paisley Park—to meet up, compare notes, and offer each other some tips for the future.
These mononymous 50-something pop auteurs might be wise to swap career advice, given the similar years they’ve had. In 2014, both Moz and the Purple One re-signed with major labels and returned after long absences with adventurous albums that generated a bit of excitement but didn’t set the world on fire.
Prince’s Art Official Age—the solo disc he released on September 30, alongside the 3rdEyeGirl group effort Plectrumelectrum—debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and topped R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart, selling 51,000 copies in its first week, about a third of the business Chris Brown did in the seven days after dropping X. This isn’t really a surprise. Villainous reputation notwithstanding, Brown is a young R&B star with far more cultural relevance than a 56-year-old Jehovah’s Witness whose best album just turned 30. But this was Prince’s return to Warner Bros., the label that inspired him to write “slave” on his cheek, change his name to a symbol, and basically commit career suicide in the mid-’90s. It’s a huge story that should have had more people talking—particularly since Art Official Age is the freshest, liveliest thing he’s done since 2006’s 3121. Instead, the popular and critical consensus seemed to be that Prince isn’t what he used to be—the prevailing public opinion for about two decades now.
Morrissey, meanwhile, teamed with Capitol imprint Harvest for World Peace Is None Of Your Business, his most wildly uneven, unashamedly Moz-like record since 1991’s Kill Uncle. The political tracks are blunt and unfunny, but wacky character pieces like “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” and “Staircase At The University” suggest this old crank still gets a kick out of hating on society.
World Peace drew mostly positive reviews and hit No. 2 in the U.K., where it was bound to surpass the No. 14 position it achieved in America, yet the singer’s subsequent break with Harvest has dominated the conversation, superseding questions of whether Morrissey has “returned to form,” as critics like to say, or even redefined himself for the post-Autobiography portion of his career.
Now, before imagining these two helping each other, it should be noted that neither is known for taking advice. Their dogged pursuit of artistic purity has made them two of the most sporadically brilliant, consistently frustrating people you could ever root for. They’ll blow your mind and drive you to drink, and devoting yourself to either—as that’s the only type of fandom left for them, really—means constantly making apologies or lowering expectations. One of them is no more likely to save the other’s career than he is to dramatically change his own public image.
That said, it’s a fun conversation to imagine—and one that might begin with Prince. Although he’s just re-upped with Warner, His Royal Badness might tell the former Smith he needs to get his head out of the ’80s and think outside the record-label box. After all, the reason for Morrissey’s five-year break between Years Of Refusal and World Peace was that he couldn’t land a record deal, and Morrissey has said time and time again that he’d never consider releasing music via nontraditional means.
“I have no DIY instincts, and recording without a major label would give the music world yet another reason to completely ignore me,” Morrissey told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013. A couple of years before that, in June 2011, he explained to Pitchfork why he’d never pull a Radiohead and try some online scheme.
“I don’t have any need to be innovative in that way,” Morrissey said, perhaps speaking into the receiver of a rotary phone. “I am still stuck in the dream of an album that sells well not because of marketing, but because people like the songs.”
Like Bono, Morrissey had his life saved by Joey Ramone (and David Johansen, and Patti Smith, and David Bowie, and Marc Bolan…), but unlike U2, he’d never dream of jacking your iTunes account with his new record. In Morrissey’s day, music had value, and consuming it meant showing up at a store and exchanging paper currency for pieces of vinyl that would spin around 33 or 45 times per minute. For a guy who mistrusts the industry as much as he does, he’s got a view of the business that’s romantic, even quaint.
It’s the reason he’s only put out four albums since 1997, and it explains why he was less than keen on Harvest’s idea to have him film those highly shareable—or snackable, as the millennials say—spoken-word promos for his World Peace tunes.
“I ploughed into them insisting upon ‘proper band videos, where the band play and I sing’—an evidently confusing concept that required seven weeks of explanation, detailed graphs and several drawn up maps,” Morrissey wrote in a statement he might have shortened to the two-word slogan recently seen on his bandmates’ T-shirts: “Fuck Harvest.”
The essence of Prince’s speech to Morrissey might be something like this: U need 2 rethink how U create music 4 your fans. Prince is an old-school guy, but in this department, he knows what he’s talking about. After splitting from Warner Bros. in 1996, he experimented with all kinds of unorthodox distribution methods, most notably the NPG Music Club, an online subscription service that launched in 2001 and offered fans a chance to purchase new music, concert tickets, and more.
Prince shuttered the site in 2006, after winning a Webby for innovation yet being forced to lower the monthly membership fee to $2.50 in response to user complaints. “In its current form, there is a feeling that the NPGMC has gone as far as it can go,” read a statement, and if that qualifies it as a failed experiment, the club wasn’t a total wash. It was the only way for fans to get records like 2004’s The Chocolate Invasion and The Slaughterhouse—compendiums of NPGMC downloads with enough funk, humor, and Princely weirdness to suggest their creator wasn’t totally fixated on the delivery system.
More recently, Prince partnered with Target for the exclusive sale of the 2009’s three-disc Lotusflow3r/MPLSound set and gave away 2007’s Planet Earth and 2010’s 20Ten with copies of European newspapers. None of these models was exactly right, just like none of these records silenced the “Prince has lost it” talk, but if nothing else, they all allowed him to do what he’s always wanted: release music with absolutely no outside interference.
Recent events evidently haven’t robbed him of this ability. In September, Prince told the Associated Press he’s in “the position that I’ve always wanted to be in” with his new Warner deal, which has given him control over his future output as well as his lucrative back catalog. Time will tell whether this arrangement really leaves him free to issue material like, say, Xpectation, the little-heard 2003 jazz set sold only through his website.
Morrissey might counter by asking the Purple Yoda how many of his umpteen post-Warner records rate as highly among fans as even second-tier career highlights like Around The World In A Day, Lovesexy, Parade, and Diamonds And Pearls.
Moz’s 21st-century M.O. has been quality over quantity. Since 1997’s Maladjusted, he’s issued four 12-song albums and one collection of B-sides and non-album singles, Swords. Those five sets, plus a few other odds and ends, make for maybe 75 or 100 songs. No matter how much Morrissey hates label politics, he seems to respect the system enough to only book studio time when he’s got a dozen tunes actually worth hearing.
That’s long been the biggest criticism of Prince—that he lacks a filter, or an editor, or both. Might 2001’s better-than-you-remember The Rainbow Children be regarded as an essential album were it not for all those eight-minute tracks and that heavy-handed-yet-esoteric utopian concept? Couldn’t the finer moments on 1998’s largely acoustic The Truth have been spaced out on other, stronger LPs? Did Xpectation need to exist at all? In light of these and other questions, Morrissey might point out that no one pines for a six-song Ringleader Of The Tormentors.
“I grew up when albums came out every three or four months,” Prince told the Rocky Mountain News in 2004, explaining the Warner beef. “I wanted to make a lot of music.”
And he still does. Unfortunately, Prince’s big 2014 comeback would’ve been more impressive and effective had he focused on Art Official Age—an energetic, assured, stylistically diverse record that opens with a mad sci-fi dance epic (“Art Official Cage”) before moving to tongue-in-cheek sex jams (“Breakfast Can Wait”), sweet love songs (“U Know” and “This Could Be Us”), and genuine moments of self-reflection (“Breakdown” and “Way Back Home”).
It’s not perfect, but next to Plectrumelectrum—in which Prince and his new female protégées impress more with their funk-rock chops than with their creativity—it’s enough to get apologists thinking about the good old days.
Morrissey’s final words to Prince in this totally hypothetical discussion: You don’t have to listen to those vile execs in the bad suits, but for God’s sake, Rainbow Children didn’t need to be 69 minutes long.
Were this fantasy chat to occur in real life, it would, of course, end in loggerheads. Morrissey’s next album won’t arrive as a surprise midnight download via True-to-you.net, and if Prince wants to put out a disc of Weather Channel jazz or cruise-ship reggae, well, get ready to hear some soprano sax. They’re incorrigible. They’ll never learn. Neither will those of us who keep coming back for more.