Maybe you’re tired of listening to, and/or hearing about Purple Rain. It’s such a cultural behemoth that I can (almost) forgive you for not wanting to think about it anymore.1 For those readers just wondering if I’ll really keep doing this, breathlessly waiting to read about The Rainbow Children, I’ll start with a spoiler: this one still holds up. In fact, it may even be better than you remember.
I need to make some confessions, too. First, I actually listened to this whole album, start to finish, just before starting the Project. It was that listen, inspired by a podcast, that kick-started the whole thing.2 Second, this has also been the hardest record to write about. It’s so embedded in popular culture, and so much ink—literal ink, metaphorical internet ink—has already been spilled about this one, that I don’t know if there’s much new to be said.
So I’ll focus now on what I learned about listening to Purple Rain in sequence of the Prince discography. It starts with a clear nod to 1999, once again using a spoken voice intro to lay out the themes of the entire album. With “1999,” the opening declared it only wanted you “to have some fun,” and on “Let’s Go Crazy” Prince himself, this time in a clear voice over a church-like organ sound, tells us we are gathered here today “to get through this thing called life.” The purpose is weightier, dearly beloved. The lyrics will (mostly) reflect that weightier subject matter, but what’s really different this time around is the sound.
Oh, we still have those Linn drums on some tracks, groovy bass lines galore, and layers of Prince vocals. We get more guitar than ever, though, a much more aggressive and sustained guitar attack than on any of the previous albums. In fact, the entire first side is a workshop in lead guitar. “Let’s Go Crazy” has that amazing lead, and an ending that brings the listener to a big rock show, after opening up in a church. Then we get the casually buried solos at the end of “The Beautiful Ones,” the extended stretches of guitar work in “Computer Blue,” with that super-cool, doubled proggy riffing that gives way a soaring lead, and finally the little orgiastic burst of riffing that finishes off “Darling Nikki”: every song is covered in layers of guitar. And that’s just Side One, people. For fans of Guitar God Prince (and as you know, I am a proud member of this group), Nirvana has been attained. What I love most about his playing is how melodic it is, even when he’s showing off. It always feels like part of the song, and not just someone establishing how quickly he can play lots and lots of notes.
Side Two kicks with another classic guitar riff—I suspect you can sing it right now. “When Doves Cry,” the first single for the album, the song that foreshadowed just how great this new Prince record would be, was recorded after everything else, and famously achieves six minutes of funk heaven without a bass line.3 Linn Drum Magician Prince is back in the house, generating a distinct and hypnotic groove, but what most stood out when I listened again, after going through his early records, was how wonderfully deep Prince’s voice is here; if this was the first thing you’d heard since 1999, this would be a whole new kind of vocal approach for the man. Lyrically, it also pokes more deeply and personally than a typical Prince song. Many of Prince’s narrators sing about relationships, of course, but usually things are much more focused on the physical. This time there’s a troubled relationship, one our narrator is trying to understand by examining his own past. There’s some talk of the physical, for sure (“They feel the heat/the heat between me and you”), but a lot more talk of emotion than most of the previous Prince love songs. It does not end with a move to just go back to bed, but with a plea: “Darling, don’t cry.”
After opening the second side with this insular, one-man-band classic, we get three songs in a row whose basic tracks were recorded live at First Avenue. “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star” are both funkpop classics, and sandwiching them between two longer opuses makes them feel even more frenetic. The record ends with the title track, and, well, more guitars. “Purple Rain” had actually been slated to start Side Two at one point, which means we can also learn about the power of revision from our Purple Professor, because it is perfect as the closer.4 After starting the record in a church, with an organ and “Dearly Beloved,” Prince ends with a spiritual. What is he singing about, exactly? Lots of different interpretations are out there, everything from Armageddon to rebirth, and I think those multiple meanings makes it one of his stronger lyrics. Plenty of vivid imagery and intense emotion, which different listeners can take different ways. What more could you want?
Again, lots of ink spilled on this one, and lots of clips of various performance—as soon as we’re done here, go ahead and watch him play it in the rain at the Super Bowl again, because it’s still great. So I’ll end by talking about Prince as bandleader, since this is the first album where that role comes into play. The video below is him leading the Revolution through “Purple Rain? at First Avenue, and I’m here to tell you it’s a tricky song to play live. You can’t play it too fast, because then it loses power, but also, don’t play it too slow, because then it just dies. The band stays locked in behind Prince at just the right tempo, allowing that guitar solo (oy, that guitar solo) to slide in and around the beat so beautifully. His advice to Wendy Melvoin, about how to stay in the groove even as all the adrenalin of a live performance rushes through you, seems a good place to end here: “It’s a meditation. You slow your breathing down, and you don’t rush, and you stay behind the beat. And that’s where the funk lies.”5
1 25 million copies sold, seems to be the most common claim. https://wdet.org/2019/12/23/princes-film-and-album-purple-rain-35-years-later/
2 It was an episode of “Soul Music,” a BBC podcast I think many music fans will enjoy: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0017k0j
3 Oh, there are lots of articles on the albu,m, and this song. But here’s one for the basics: https://www.thisisdig.com/feature/when-doves-cry-prince-song-story/
4 Lots of random facts here, including different sequences: https://rock.fandom.com/wiki/Purple_Rain_(album)