The news that a batch of as-yet-unheard material from Prince was to be unveiled on the first anniversary of his death sent a ripple of excitement through the Internet that could have been measured on the Richter scale. The small snippet of music that came with the announcement—a fruitfully bluesy jam sparked by unabashedly religious sentiments—only fueled that fire.
Disappointment set in when the news release also revealed that neither The Purple One’s estate nor his label Universal Music Group had any hand in it. It was, instead, the combined efforts of Ian Boxhill, a Trinidadian engineer who worked on Musicology and 3121, and a brand new publishing entity known as the Rogue Music Alliance whose 8-bit video game-inspired website states that, while all profits would be going back to Paisley Park, their logic in releasing this music independently was to circumvent “the gatekeepers [Prince] despised and the traditional record contracts he viewed as slavery.” It was only a matter of time before lawyers put a quick stop to this whole thing, citing the fact that Boxhill was violating a confidentiality agreement he signed when he was under Prince’s employ.
There’s no telling now if these tracks will ever officially see the light of day. But while that brief window opened for us to peer into this small corner of Prince’s vault, we were given another glimpse of the man who, in his later years, tried to balance his willing mind and his weak flesh following a religious conversion in around 2001.
What details we have about the music on Deliverance aren’t very clear or concrete. According to the RMA and Boxhill, these tracks came out of the same period of time (2006-2008) when Musicology and 3121 were completed, and Prince had intentions to finish these songs at some point. Until someone talks with Boxhill directly, we have to take him at his word, even though history doesn’t side with him on that issue. There are thousands of unreleased recordings in the vault, and Prince put a decade’s worth of miles and studio time between himself and these tunes.
Taking Deliverance as it is, the EP is undeniably satisfying. These six songs are lushly produced with strings and horns coloring the edges, front-facing bass lines and those little arch touches of synth or re-pitched vocals that are quintessentially Prince. The title track—the only song from this EP that can still be purchased today—is nothing short of heavenly with our hero using his voice and guitar to testify and, with the help of a gospel choir, boiling over into full on spiritual frenzy.
On a purely musical level, the biggest question surrounding these songs is what exactly Boxhill and his people did or did not do them. Any dedicated fan can at least point out some details that just don’t fit. Prince was one of music’s great minimalists, stripping away whatever might cloud his core argument. Listen to almost of his studio work and you’ll hear ample amounts of empty space. Compare that to the string parts on “Sunrise Sunset” and “No One Else” that, although they’re mirroring a lovely climbing piano melody, only clutter up the mix. Same goes for the acoustic guitar that doubles up the main rhythm guitar line on the dizzyingly funky “I Am.”
The most glaring piece of these songs that quickly explain why Prince set these aside are his vocals. As the suite subtitled “(Man Opera)” that makes up the bulk of this EP shifts into “Sunrise Sunset,” his voice becomes ragged and cracks, missing the high note he was reaching for. And it keeps happening as the song rolls along. It’s a humanizing moment but one that Prince, an unapologetic perfectionist, would never want his fans to hear. He also seems to be holding back a bit on “No One Else,” only giving 50% of himself. These were clearly scratch tracks that Prince might have gone back over given enough time and energy.
We’ll never really know for sure what, if anything, Prince had in mind for this material. “Deliverance” may have wound up on a Crystal Ball-like data dump at some future date. Or he may have let all these songs languish in obscurity forever. But in the wake of Prince’s passing a year ago today, the world has proven ravenous for more, be it the deluxe edition of Purple Rain that’s on the way or the single track that was tacked on to the 2016 greatest hits collection 4Ever. The legality of Deliverance or the quality of the music on it is beside the point. Prince fans will take whatever they can get.