I have a very complex relationship with this album.
I have stop and started this piece all week. I hate what Prince became after Purple Rain– a hateful, vengeful, misogynistic, derivative pop star who would alienate many of his former fans with his prickly personality. He would never be as good as he was in 1984-1987. I even think Sign O’ The Times is the better overall album.
Now, the truth is, Prince was always what I just accused him of becoming. The movie this album is a soundtrack for is a whiny, poorly acted piece of shit. And that personality of his is all over the damn thing. The only parts that are tolerable are the songs, and even then, “Darling Nikki” is one of the single most horrific pieces of music written. I am greatly offended by it, and I’m not a prude.
There is much to admire and love, though, about this record. The music geek in me wins out over the feminist.
I mean, take the glorious funk hard rock of “Let’s Go Crazy”, a ridiculously catchy party track and thoroughly entertaining song. It has that grand organ intro that announces his intention to create a religious experience through music, and he comes damn close with this hard-hitting classic.
It’s hard for me not to be suddenly seven years old, in my bedroom with the ballerina wallpaper and unicorns, jumping up and down like a mad child when it came on the radio. The album was huge in my youth, and I couldn’t escape it. Madonna’s Like A Virgin was also huge in my life at the time, but as much as my singing “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time” irritated my father, I’m sure his little girl dancing to a song that refers to a purple banana and pills, thrills and fatal daffodils thrilled him to bits.
There is also the fantastic funk of “When Doves Cry”, my favourite Prince song to this day. How something so richly based in heavy funkadelic tones has no bass line amazes me, but it’s true. It’s all synthesizer, guitars, drum machines, and a little piano. The lyrics, about the impact of familial relationships on your own love affairs, are direct and unforgiving, and possibly the closest he has ever come to looking at his own views of love on record.
The album has two more undeniable highlights- the title track, which is a stunningly beautiful ballad with an interminable outro, and the ridiculously upbeat “I Would Die 4 U”, complete with insane spelling. The songs are polar opposites- “I Would Die 4 U” being a dance track spun form a in studio jam session and “Purple Rain” being a complex power ballad with orchestral touches and a pretty astonishing vocal performance by this Tiny Purple One.
Of the other five tracks on the album, “Darling Nikki”, despite its notoriety, is a terrible song that has dated poorly and is now chiefly remembered for it’s sexually explicit lyrics and the fact Tipper Gore hates it; “The Beautiful Ones” has a great falsetto vocal but sounds very 80s thanks to the synths and keyboards; “Computer Blue” is probably the least interesting song on the album, probably it’s the most typical rock track of the lot; “Take Me With U” is a charming if slight piece of 80s pop; and “Baby I’m a Star” is a self -aggrandizing disco track. It’s an album that has four truly great, almost perfect songs that balance out the rest of the album, which are sub par considering the source.
So why pick this record over the even better and politically charged Sign O’ The Times?
Well, good question. I hate the movie. I prefer the 1987 album, which gets criminally overlooked in my mind, and my relationship with Prince since 1987 has been fraught with trouble- with me thinking he’s a pompous, sexist, egomaniacal asshole and everything.
The fact is those four songs in particular take me back, even better than the Madonna album, to when I was a child in 1984, before I had my heartbroken, before I learned how hurt I would be by the world, and how I just loved to listen to music and dance. It was before I looked for deep meaning, and before I decided to make music my life, but even then, I was so moved by a couple of songs by a single artist to think they were the greatest thing ever, even for a few minutes.
I still react like that when I hear great music. At least that part of me never changes. It’s the one thing I have from my youth that still feels like it’s a part of me. That’s why I picked this record.