Opinion | Matthew Bernstein

The expansive artistry of Prince

Worcester, MA - 3/27/1985: Prince shows his appreciation to the crowd during the first of two sold out shows at the Worcester Centrum in Worcester, Mass., on March 27, 1985. (Chris Christo/UPI) --- BGPA Reference: 160421_MJ_009 22princeappreciation Prince Rogers Nelson
Chris Christo/UPI
Prince showed his appreciation to the crowd during a concert in Worcester, Mass., in March of 1985.

Prince’s music will never go out of style, in the same way that “The Godfather” will never be dated and weddings will never be without a Shakespeare sonnet. His work defines what it means to be timeless. Prince, born Prince Rogers Nelson but, once and forever, “Prince,” wasn’t a pop artist, a funk artist, a soul artist, or a rock artist, though he was all the above. He was a musical artist in the most complete and expansive sense. His death Thursday, at 57, comes tragically soon. For a music lover, it is palpably painful.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine Prince ever thinking, this will be a crossover hit. Boundaries were beside the point. I grew up in a rural Pennsylvania town where top 40 was considered bold, and can still recall how “Delirious” spun my head when it buzzed from my clock radio late one night. Within days, I was racing to the record store for “1999” on cassette. I peeled off the plastic and heard the (seldom-cited) intro: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you, I only want you to have . . . some . . . fun.”

Mission accomplished. It’s been more than 30 years, and I’ve played and replayed at least 15 of his albums, discovering new sounds every time. The hits — “When Doves Cry,” “1999,” “Kiss” — will be duly posted on many a website. And go on, enjoy every last one of them. They never get old. But as an alternative, and Prince was ever an alternative, I offer a few deeper tracks:


SEX SONGS: From the first tilt of the pelvis, rock and roll has always been about the nasty. Prince just dispensed with the innuendo and went straight for the body, with bluntness and pure relish, toppling taboo. The titles of many of his best songs of salaciousness can’t even be printed here. But for a sample, listen to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “Sister” (1 minute, 31 seconds of outrageous incestuous confessional), “319” (phone sex), and “It” (as in what he’d like to do, all night).

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“MOUNTAINS”: This song, from his 1986 film “Under the Cherry Moon,” is an answer — though there are countless others — to anyone who has ever accused Prince of being a more accomplished instrumentalist than a lyricist. He wrote love songs that were heartfelt, spiritual, and generous, and rich with poetic imagery (“U said the devil told u that another mountain would appear/Everytime somebody broke your heart.” “It’s only mountains and the sea/There’s nothing greater, u and me”). Other essential love songs: “Condition of the Heart,” “The Beautiful Ones.”

“SHY”: From 1995’s “The Gold Experience” (one side of a coin flip, for me, over which is his greatest album; the other, needless to say, is 1987’s “Sign o’ the Times”). This is my favorite Prince song, if I had to pick one. It is a sad nighttime adventure in which the narrator roams the streets of Los Angeles “in search of a poem,” and encounters an alluring companion. She proceeds to tell him about her gang initiation: “I’m goin’ back 2morrow 2 make sure he’s dead/Cuz if I don’t, they’ll call me a chicken”. “Fact or fiction,” he wonders. We’re left with the mystery.

“JOINT 2 JOINT”: Features a tap solo by Savion Glover. Need I say more?

“SOMETIMES IT SNOWS IN APRIL”: Earlier this month, when we were surprised by a spring storm, the first thing I thought of was this song. I’m thinking of it again now:


“Sometimes it snows in April

Sometimes I feel so bad

Sometimes, sometimes I wish that life was never ending,

And all good things, they say, never last.”

Matthew Bernstein is the Globe’s letters editor.