Purple Spring: Purple Rain (1984)
Written by Quake
No pussyfooting around it. This album swaggers from beginning to end. No more slithery funk, no more sparse, no-nonsense production. Purple Rain is all about the nonsense. Like your prototypical midnight movie phenomenon, this is a work of operatic eccentricity that opens with a sermon and ends with a prayerful power ballad. Electric surges are the norm.
Already in only three albums we’ve moved from the dry, disarmingly direct Dirty Mind through the lush urban beat jungles of 1999 and now, with Purple Rain, Prince brings all of his myriad talents into a single barrage. Nine tracks long, this is technically the soundtrack to a film I haven’t seen that bears the same name. Its songs continue delving into Prince’s fascination with the overlap between procreative pleasure and impending doom.
“Let’s Go Crazy” is almost a repeat of “1999,” save for the fact that it improves on it in every way. It’s a dynamic, carnivalesque ode to going bananas on the eve of the apocalypse. For the first time that I can remember, we see our ringleader flex his muscles on the six-string with a startling solo that, despite its virtuosity, is mixed much lower than in a conventional album. Excess done tastefully–this is a balance that few achieve in their lifetime. Yet for nigh forty minutes this is what Prince is doing. “Take Me With U,” opening with a blitz of drums, incorporates orchestral sounds into a rhythmic world much more complicated and intriguing than it might first sound. Its sentiments are simple, but the execution is excellent, maximizing the value Prince gets out of each and every line.
Shifting to a far more subdued sound, or so it might first seem, “The Beautiful Ones” brings out Prince’s legendary scream. As much as I enjoy the first couple of albums covered here, rock-star theatricality suits him better than provocative-yet-straightfaced sex jams. This song reaches ecstatic highs riding on his falsetto, pushing synths to set the mood while the bass drums and distorted guitars cloak the whole track in a kind of heavy metal vibe. From here, we find “Computer Blue,” which has the most in common with 1999. Yet here even the heavily regimented beats conjure up menace and passion, its militaristic march dissolving into guitar frenzies that are far more expressionistic than anything on that album. I would say that on Purple Rain, Prince lets his instrumentation loose. While in his earlier work it merely set the scene, here it owns the stage as much as his ridiculously versatile voice.
Perhaps the mid-album highlight is “Darling Nikki,” a kind of ballad that dispenses with all opacity with lyrics like “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” The synths push out smoke and red light, giving the track the feel of a horror film, though one that sounded immensely fun to be in. As the song rushes to a close in an extended instrumental outro, bass-kicks throb in the background while Prince’s guitar thrashes and the synths eventually give way to strange voices that haunt and wail.
“When Doves Cry” lacks a bassline but it represents one of Prince’s pinnacles in songwriting. Its lyrics are vivid and obtuse, the beat defiant, and Prince himself singing in many voices. Guitar solos punctuate it. It has daring and life to spare. This is Prince at his best. Immediately following it is another song that looks into the eyes of death, “I Would Die 4 U.” The narrator sings,
You’re just a sinner I am told
Be your fire when you’re cold
Make u happy when you’re sad
Make u good when u are bad
Being acquainted with both sin and its redemption, Prince makes wonderful use of these simple binary opposites. His persona is flexible, able to bend this way and that to make room for almost any kind of sentiment he wishes to express, whether flamboyantly sexual or touchingly sincere. That he often leans toward the latter on Purple Rain speaks to another strength of this record and the other work he would make in the later 80s: a precise command of an image that becomes more complicated, actually growing in stature and complexity over time. No longer content with being just a love machine, Prince has broadened and become more alien and at the same time more relatable.
The penultimate track is “Baby I’m A Star,” a dance-rock track that insists on moving all over the floor and beyond. It has a post-disco drum machine beat and some truly inspired piano additions. “We are a star,” sings the chorus. Hard to tell whether he’s talking about himself and his woman or all the Princes.
Finally, the album closes with its nearly 9-minute title track. Deeply apologetic, wreathed in the atmosphere of almost sacramental reverence, it is piercing in its intensity. Building slowly over its extended running time, it strikes you at first as a kind of epic power ballad. It is also, of course, a closing track, summing up the power of the preceding eight songs and channeling every watt of it into its fiery guitar work. Maximalism never sounded so necessary.
Purple Rain overflows. It is gilded by flourishes, never stopping to ask the listener’s opinion of it before charging ahead. It is clearly using Prince’s new backing band, The Revolution, to its fullest without distracting from the leading man. It is the greatest Prince album. Stay cool.