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Prince’s and Tom Petty’s Posthumous Careers Are Off to a Great Start

For ‘Piano & a Microphone 1983’ and ‘An American Treasure,’ the estates of two beloved rock stars raid their respective vaults, tastefully

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the day Michael Jackson died, the posthumous Michael Jackson–industrial complex was born. The King of Pop’s death on June 25, 2009, triggered both shuddering waves of grief and a massive influx of capital: Immediately, he had the top three best-selling albums in America. Time to plot those deluxe reissues, raid those vaults, scrape those barrels, fire up those holograms. The documentary Michael Jackson’s This Is It was in theaters by Halloween; in the spring, his estate announced a massive deal with Sony Music, comprising 10 new archival MJ projects to be released over the next seven years. Potential profit: $250 million. The first release, a collection of previously unreleased tracks called Michael, emerged in December 2010. It was disastrous. Class-action-lawsuit disastrous. Alleged–Michael Jackson–impersonator disastrous.

That lawsuit—filed by a fan named Vera Serova in 2014, after years of rumors that three Michael tracks feature lead vocals from an MJ sound-alike named Jason Malachi—is still raging and only getting weirder. “Sony Music Has Not Conceded That Vocals on Michael Jackson Album Are Fake” is a Variety headline from August. Days later, Sony was cleared, but that quarter-billion-dollar 10-albums-in-seven-years plan is in shambles, so far coughing up only one other project, 2014’s Xscape, an improvement in the sense that nobody got sued over it. (Yet.)

The estates of Prince (who died in April 2016) and Tom Petty (who died in October 2017) are very eager to avoid this sort of catastrophe. Blessedly, the first major releases from both camps are pretty fantastic. Last Friday came Prince’s Piano & a Microphone 1983, a digital release of a recently discovered cassette tape featuring solo runs through long-treasured B-sides, future album tracks, and covers of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep.” And this Friday brings Tom Petty’s An American Treasure, a career-spanning, four-disc, 60-track box set packed with unreleased songs, live favorites, alternate versions, and deep album cuts, all proof that his five-decade career is unassailable even if you avoid many of his best-known songs. Both projects aim to be reverent but not stuffy, intimate but not invasive. They are joyous, of course, but above all, they are cautious. And from Tupac’s mysterious afterlife to Kurt Cobain’s best-selling diary, cautionary tales abound.

The Prince situation, of course, is especially delicate. In life, he was infamously protective and mercurial when it came to his catalog, with maddening effects ranging from his erratic availability on streaming services to his disavowal of fan-beloved projects like the mythic 1987 The Black Album, a spectacularly sordid funk excursion he pulled shortly after release. “I suddenly realized that we can die at any moment, and we’d be judged by the last thing we left behind,” he later explained to Rolling Stone. “I didn’t want that angry, bitter thing to be the last thing.” His standards were much higher than his fans’ standards; there are things he didn’t want you to hear, even if you were desperate to hear them.

Prince’s death triggered a dense legal mess, in that he left no will, and thus left his six siblings continually at odds with a bank of lawyers. He also left, in his Paisley Park compound, a quite literal vault of unreleased music, which is now being digitized and cataloged and will, eventually, be monetized. His estate offered an early taste in April, via the original studio version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Did we want it? Absolutely. Did he want us to have it? If he did, odds are he’d have given it to us long ago.

That cloud hangs over Piano & a Microphone 1983, where the whole appeal is the rawness, the incompleteness, the immaculate imperfection. You, the listener, are eavesdropping. He flubs notes, and chords. He audibly sniffles. He calls out technical futzes to the engineer. He vamps and preens on a goofy romp called “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” improvising lyrics on the fly, reaching for a rhyme for house and settling on mouse. The two most tantalizing tracks by name recognition alone—“A Case of You” and “Purple Rain”—are both embryonic sketches that last about a minute and a half apiece before dissolving.

All of which is deeply thrilling. Obviously. The nine-track album begins with a skeletal version of the “When Doves Cry” B-side “17 Days,” and the first time you hear Prince sing—“Called you / Yesterday / You didn’t answer your phone”—it’s a gut punch and a dopamine hit all at once. He is stomping his foot to keep the beat, multitasking as usual; he is beatboxing and throwing out a James Brown–style Good god! when the mood strikes. That swagger multiplies on “Strange Relationship,” a lover’s quarrel destined for 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times: “Bet you wish this was a movie / Then you could rewrite my every line,” he moans, punctuating the verses with a booming two-handed chord and a guttural Huh! And he returns to the only slightly lascivious ballad “International Lover,” released the previous year in 1982 on his 1999 album, turning it into something even prettier and gentler, though he can’t resist beatboxing a little there, too.

The centerpiece is the pre–Civil War standard “Mary Don’t You Weep,” the project’s most bombastic vocal performance, with Prince alternating feral growls and heaven-adjacent falsetto: “I got a bad, bad feeling / That your man ain’t coming home.” The official video, released in mid-September, is a lengthy and unflinching meditation on gun violence: a past-tense concern of Prince’s that forever remains a present-tense epidemic. There is zero chance he would’ve disapproved of the message here, but that temporal dissonance is still striking. He is immortal, but he nonetheless has no say now in how mere mortals choose to reframe and repackage him.

The massive Paisley Park vault digitization process is being overseen by Michael Howe, a former music-industry executive and Prince confidante who is careful, in interviews, to strike a thoughtful tone. “We don’t know with certainty what Prince would’ve contemplated releasing at some point,” he told Vulture in September, adding of Piano & a Microphone, “It certainly was not in his line of sight at the time, otherwise it would’ve come out. He had pretty strong ideas about what was suitable for release and what wasn’t, but there were times, and I’m paraphrasing, that he said, ‘All these recordings in the vault at some point would see the light of day after I’m gone.’”

It all comes down to who you trust to do that paraphrasing. Piano & a Microphone is brief but striking; incomplete but never slight; slightly uncomfortable and frequently wonderful. As the first salvo from the posthumous Prince-industrial complex, it’s awfully promising, and it at least attempts to minimize the unease of balancing what we want—everything, basically—with what we can only assume he would want.

Tom Petty, too, left behind a vault of music, and a daunting legacy now primarily under the care of his wife, Dana, his daughter Adria, and his longtime bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Overseen by latter-day Petty producer Ryan Ulyate, An American Treasure is a more conventional box set, arising from the same infinite-content impulse enjoyed by all classic rockers, alive or dead. (Last week the 14th entry in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series was announced, an exploration of the extended Blood on the Tracks universe helpfully titled More Blood, More Tracks.) But in Petty’s absence, there’s a familiar sense of caution in the air. “I just pretended he was sitting next to me,” Campbell told Rolling Stone, describing the track-selection process. “I’d say, ‘Should we use this or not? Tom, what do you think? Yes? No?’ That became my barometer.”

The resulting big-ticket items are unreleased gems like “Keep a Little Soul,” culled from the sessions for 1982’s Long After Dark, replete with his familiar triumphant jangle and delivering a nice past-tense-as-present-tense burst of inspiration: “All people got soul, honey / All people got dreams / Don’t be afraid to get up on your feet, man / Oh, depend on me / Don’t be afraid to live what you believe.”

An American Treasure proceeds chronologically and avoids megahits like “American Girl” or “Free Fallin’,” but still gives you a sense of Petty’s world-conquering scope. It keeps even casual fans hooked via the live cuts (a magnificently sultry “Breakdown” from 1977, the hooting crowd tiny but raucous) and alternate versions. (The box’s revised take on “Here Comes My Girl” is relatively unchanged and a mere 30 seconds longer than the original, but lets that climactic guitar solo cook.) His old pal Stevie Nicks shows up twice: on an old demo of “The Apartment Song” from 1989’s Full Moon Fever, and a live 2006 version of their 1981 duet “Insider,” off Hard Promises. “God it’s such a drag when you live in the past,” Petty drawls, doing a solo-guitar-and-vocal version of “Even the Losers” live in 1989. The now much larger crowd responds, of course, with pure rapture.

Whatever your level of Petty investment—and whatever your preferred era—something here is bound to floor you. The album tracks are expertly chosen, just undersung enough to magnify their greatness, whether it’s Full Moon Fever’s “Alright for Now” (a very important song to me) or the swinging, winsome acoustic jam “No Second Thoughts” from 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It! No new-to-us track here qualifies as irreplaceable, but the box-opening “Surrender,” which Ulyate described to Rolling Stone as “like a Moby Dick that they were always chasing,” will capably transport you back to Petty’s mid-’70s roots via the intensity of his voice alone: lovely and ferocious and youthful and lethally tuneful and most of all free.

Even on the fourth disc, which largely concerns itself with slighter late-period albums like 2006’s solo Highway Companion or 2014’s Heartbreakers swan song Hypnotic Eye, a devastating sort of transcendence is always lurking. The old Tom Petty album this box most inspires me to return to is 1985’s Southern Accents, partly thanks to a 2006 live version of the title track that collapses the distance between the irascible young buck and the wistful elder statesman, and posits that song in particular as his very own “Let It Be.” The final verse begins like this: “There’s a dream I keep having / Where my mama comes to me / And kneels down over by the window / And says a prayer for me.” Bonus points, I suppose, if the box set makes you cry.

But the single best track here is an alternate version of the closing Southern Accents power ballad “The Best of Everything.” The changes are relatively minor, stripping off a few layers of mid-’80s cheeseball gauze, the better to let the gentle piano and the righteous horns and Petty’s voice shine: “Yeah, and it’s over before you know it / It all goes by so fast / Yeah, the bad nights last forever / And the good nights don’t ever seem to last.”

It’s rare to get emotional catharsis this pure from posthumous music-biz product with even the best of intentions. Neither Petty’s nor Prince’s vaults are infinite—there are only so many ways to resell Wildflowers or even Purple Rain. But the calculus here, both musical and moral, thus far seems to have been done by the best possible people with the best of intentions. You can get a genuine and uncomplicated thrill out of these projects, and best of all, there’s no lawsuit-triggering question as to who’s giving it to you.