Purple Spring Review: Parade (1986)

by tigermanifesto

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

Sometimes people can dazzle you with their sheer lack of consistency. I was so dazzled once reading a review that celebrated Prince for being a shape-shifting eccentric who was able to survey the vast landscape of musical genres and say to it, “mine.” At the same time, however, the writer dismissed Parade and its immediate predecessor, Around the World in a Day, as the least satisfying of his albums. Those two thoughts might not have seemed to conflict in the writer’s mind, but in mine they are as opposite as east and west. This record is Prince at his most inward-looking and esoteric, the music speaking of exotic animals and locales, giving us a full-blown aural fantasy. It’s hopeless, romantic, and tragic.

Parade is another soundtrack, this time for Under the Cherry Moon. Wikipedia’s introduction to its page on this film reads, in part:

Under the Cherry Moon is a 1986 American musical drama film directed by and starring Prince as a gigolo named Christopher Tracy and former Time member Jerome Benton as his partner, Tricky. Together, the pair swindle wealthy French women. The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to swindle her when he finds out that she receives a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday.

The film was a commercial and critical failure, which probably did nothing to polish the prestige of its soundtrack. This is not inevitable, of course. Plenty of films are more beloved for their soundtracks than their filmic value. Consider The Crow, for instance, or Heavy Metal. Of course, part of the reason there might have been resisitance to thsi album is that it upsets many of people’s expectations for what a Prince album should do. What I mean is that the Prince that the people of the 1980s (probably good people, at least most of them) had come to know the smooth, slick, funky sex idol. This is understandable. Yet, and as the leader of a rock band with psychedelic inclinations myself, I cannot help but be biased in this matter, I think this represents a huge step forward for Prince.

Justin Timberlake recently released his album The 20/20 Experience, which has drawn and earned frequent comparisons with Prince’s 1980s work. More to the point, a tidbit of behind-the-scenes conversation came out in an interview. Apparently, one of JT’s friends, on hearing early versions of some of the songs off the new record, commented that they were “music you could see,” hence the title of the album. What this gets at–and what the writer of this Paste review gets right–is that this describes a certain cinematic quality to the music, a sensual tangibility and grace that makes it more evocative and imagistic than most music. Parade, even more than the bombastically perfect Purple Rain, has a cinematic sensibility. Songs have clear “settings” and the listener can enter into them. They breathe, have ample space to maneuver, and are full of valuable little curiosities for us to pick through. Parade is a trip to paradise in miniature.

We’ll get the hit out of the way first. “Kiss” is the most traditional-sounding song on the album, relatively speaking. Thudding drum-machine beats keep the time, Prince drops his sugary falsetto over endearing romantic lyrics, and while it’s certainly not as spartan in its production as many of the tracks on Dirty Mind, it drives forward rather than meandering. That description might have implied a low opinion of “Kiss,” but I think it’s one of Prince’s best hits. It has a genuine uplift to it, especially when its simple guitar solo swoops down. “Rule my world,” Prince commands, and despite being a straight guy my hand snaps to salute “yes, sir!” The sound builds over time, adding in mallet instruments and that aforementioned guitar.

My personal favourite song, and the one I find most emblematic of the approach here, is the eerie “Under the Cherry Moon.” Vague inklings of an apocalypse come forward. What is to be done under that cherry moon, whose reddish tinge could be seen either as an angry crimson or tender blush? Why, die or have sex of course. These two acts, so intimately connected in Prince’s songs, come together as tender partners. It’s a song that pines for a break in the norm–death, wild kisses, a purposeful destiny, anything–that will drive away his heart’s wanderlust. A close second-best for me is “Life Can Be So Nice,” which tingles and twists. Its music is wrapped like embarrassingly verdant greenery around beats that leap here and there, difficult to pin down at any moment.

Life can be so nice. A wonderful world, paradise
Kiss me once, kiss me twice. Life can be so nice. So nice

I would wager this is as close to a thesis statement for the album as we are ever going to get. This is music that is pure ear candy, showering the listener with songs celebrating life, affection, and the romantic ideal. All of that is shaded, of course, by a realization of how fleeting and depressing life can be. Soulful and wintry, “Sometimes It Snows in April” caps off the little carnival by sounding its death knell. Joy merges and tangles up with sorrow, separating and bending out. “April” is a song possessed with a slow-freezing melancholy that is beautiful but distancing. By far the longest track on the album, it has a powerful impact, colouring our perception of what came before. Life has to end sometime, and winter can hang past its due.

I’ve given up on trying to understand Prince. Like any person, his complications sprawl wide and run deep like veins of ore. Because celebrities are presented by media and often their own publicity staff in relatively simple ways, we think of them as accessible and comprehensible figures. Dirty Mind and 1999 told Prince’s stories with no embellishment for the most part. They were radical but, despite the length of the latter, within our grasp. Parade is strong, effective music that hints at deeper currents, being more introspective, wilder, and more pleasurable than most pop could hope to be. It’s not as vast or all-encompassing as Purple Rain–it is narrating a narrower, deeper story. I would never recommend people start here with Prince; I would rather they be pleasantly surprised.