Ever since Warner Bros.’ expanded reissue of Purple Rain opened the floodgates of posthumous Prince releases in 2017, the focus of most fans and critics has (understandably) been on the wealth of material still languishing in the legendary Vault. But there are still plenty of gems that were released during Prince’s lifetime, now hiding in plain sight and worthy of our attention. Saturday’s special Record Store Day release of 1998’s The Truth is the perfect case in point: More than a mere collector’s curio, it marks the first standalone physical reissue of one of this prolific artist’s richest, weirdest and most intimate albums.
This undermining of the “unplugged” premise pervades The Truth in ways both subtle (like the unsettling sound of a radio tuned between stations that bubbles beneath the surface of “Don’t Play Me”) and overt (like the ostentatious and, frankly, ridiculous synthesized trumpet on “Man in a Uniform”). With its prominent synth and programmed drums, a track like “Circle of Amour” is no more “acoustic” than, say, “Forever in My Life” from 1987’s Sign “O” the Times; even the genuinely stripped-down groove of “3rd Eye” can’t resist throwing in a few synthesizer swells and layered vocal harmonies, not to mention an elastic bassline by Rhonda Smith of the NPG.The album’s lyrics play a similar trick. Parts of The Truth are among the most personal songs in Prince’s catalog. “Don’t Play Me” is a searing rejection of the “mountaintop” of mainstream stardom, while “Comeback” is a heartfelt tribute to Amiir, the infant son he and wife Mayte Garcia lost in late 1996. Both “Dionne” and “One of Your Tears” are barbed love letters to singer Dionne Farris, with whom he’d had a dalliance earlier in the decade. Vegan anthem “Animal Kingdom,” while less traditionally autobiographical, is the Artist at his most literal, with lyrics that sound like copy from a PETA campaign set to music. Elsewhere, however, he seems to use personal details as a kind of misdirection: On “Circle of Amour,” for example, he grounds the setting at his own high school (“Tenth grade Central in September”), then uses that setting to weave a lurid fantasy worthy of a Penthouse Forum letter.
In short, The Truth is an album that revels in unsettling its own binaries: acoustic and electric, “authentic” and constructed, and yes, even truth and lies. It’s an album that every Prince fan—even those who had lapsed by the late ‘90s—needs to hear. And, while a limited vinyl release on Record Store Day isn’t exactly the wide exposure it deserves, it is in keeping with its obscurantist original release strategy. Just, please don’t try and flip it on Discogs—at least until I can get my hands on a copy.
Zachary Hoskins is the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.
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