Around the World in a Day revisited

Music Journalism courseBy Patrick Owen-Smith

Around the World in a Day is a strange album. It is not Prince’s best, not his most grandiose nor his most diverse. It is however one of his most brave and important records, as it encapsulates perfectly both the willingness that Prince had in the eighties to reject the easy and more profitable option available to him, and also sets much of the foundation on which the truly great Sign O’ The Times would be built.

Following the success of Purple Rain, Prince could quite easily have continued to blend the funk, rock and R’n’B that had defined his albums of the early eighties and brought the ‘Minneapolis Sound’ into the mainstream. It is likely he would have continued to make great songs, and sales would have probably followed suit. However, Around the World in a Day inhabits an altogether different world, emitting psychedelic sounds that would not be out of place on an album from the late sixties.

To put into perspective, a brief compare and contrast. Purple Rain’s first track, ‘Let’s go Crazy’, hurtles towards the listener proclaiming “Let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts, look for the purple banana, ‘fore they put us in the truck!”. From four years prior, ‘Dirty Mind’ (from the album of the same name) gives us the very seedy but always amusing “In my daddy’s car, it’s you I really wanna drive”. The eponymous opening to Around… though substitutes funk guitar and promiscuous hedonism for soothing ouds and cellos, with lyrics (“Open your heart, open your mind, a train is leaving all day, a wonderful trip through our time, and laughter is all you pay”) which combine to create a sound and mood so far removed from Prince’s previous work that they almost seem like the song of a different artist altogether.

As much as Warner Bros. would have liked another Purple Rain, Prince refused to make his art a democracy. He also refused to release a single to promote the album until a month after its release, as he believed that it should be appreciated in its entirety first. Around… should almost be celebrated for that alone. Musical bravery is not a particularly common sight, and many who seek a formula for success seem unwilling to veer from it once it is found. Yet Prince was willing to sacrifice millions in sales and, one imagines, in receipts as well, in order to make the music that he wanted.

While diversity and boldness are all well and good, are the tracks actually up to much? For the most part they are. The aforementioned title track is a great opener, and little needs to be said about the everlasting perfection of ‘Raspberry Beret’. These songs are accompanied by two others which are amongst the most underrated songs Prince has ever released. ‘Pop Life’, a cutting attack on the trifling concerns of his showbiz peers (“Is the poverty getting you down? Is the mailman jerking you round? Did he put your million dollar cheque in someone else’s box?”), reignites the mid-part of the album, whereas ‘Paisley Park’, with its gorgeous blend of positive lyrics, thick guitar and ascendant violin, never fails to uplift. 

Admittedly there are some duds, such as the overwrought ‘Condition of the Heart’ and ‘America’, where the use of ‘America the Brave’ in the chorus moves the didactic theme of the album too far into the preachy side of earnest. All in all though, Around… stands up very strongly alongside the rest of Prince’s golden period, which makes its continued role as something of a footnote in his catalogue something of a mystery. Perhaps, as with Parade, released a year later in 1986, the LP suffers both for being best-known primarily for a single track in ‘Raspberry Beret’, as Parade is with ‘Kiss’, and also for being bookended by Purple Rain and Sign O’ the Times, arguably the Purple One’s two most famous and acclaimed works.

Yet perhaps the most significant moments of Around the World in a Day lie within the final track, ‘Temptation’, where Prince confronts the borderline nymphomania so prevalent within the music of his formative years. ‘Temptation’ sets its stall out immediately, as Prince whispers “Sex, temptation, lust” with an elongation on the “s” sounds that bring to mind, coincidentally or otherwise, the familiar anthropomorphism of Eden’s serpent. The first half then follows the path of a confession (“Everybody on this earth has got a vice…I’m guilty in the first degree”), as the listener is treated to a list of sins which leave little to the imagination.

Then, as the Funkadelic-style guitar and apocalyptic snare die out, the last minutes of the album are devoted to a conversation between Prince and a voice one must assume is “God”. After the latter condemns him for his hedonism, Prince sees the error of his ways, proclaiming, in a way that almost makes it sound infantile when read separately without the music, that “Love is more important than sex”. With this, the Around the World in a Day journey is complete.

The significance of this song, much like the album itself, is often understated. While it is by no means the best song he ever made, or even the best song of the record, ‘Temptation’ is a landmark moment for any devotee of Prince. For if you scour the last three significant albums he made in the eighties, this spiritual awakening seems to come home to roost within his music. With the odd exceptions, such as ‘New Position’ from Parade, and ‘It’ from Sign O’ the Times, the post ‘Temptation’ Prince is a far more restrained man sexually, at least within the confines of his music.

The results of this, as anyone who has listened to and enjoyed his latter eighties albums will testify, are stunning. There is a maturity within that music that may very well have not existed had Prince not made a record such as Around the World in a Day. As such, it remains a record courageous in its willingness to discard the securities that another Purple Rain would have provided, and charming in its applicable message of generosity and self-worth.