Album Review: Prince & The Revolution - Purple Rain (reissue)
Here’s a controversial hot take for you: Purple Rain is not that good of a movie.
I’ve seen Purple Rain in its entirety one time; last year (2016), shortly after Prince Rogers Nelson passed away. I seem to remember seeing bits and pieces of it on VH-1 in my teenage years, but I had never sat down to watch the whole thing.
And maybe that’s why I don’t think it’s that great of a movie—because I didn’t watch it during a formative time. Maybe it’s because I’m not originally from Minnesota; I just live here. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in the Twin Cities in the 1980s in the shadow of Prince’s meteoric rise to fame.
Or maybe it’s just not that good of a movie. Did anyone ever consider that?
The story makes little to no sense; the acting is stiff; the editing is a mess. Now, despite these facts, people overlook these, and other, problematic elements to it, and now—especially now, following Prince’s death—it’s looked back on fondly as some kind of classic, despite how flawed it is in nearly every way.
In sharp contrast, Purple Rain, the album from Prince and The Revolution, the de facto soundtrack to the movie, is damn near flawless.
Looked at as Prince’s commercial peak (and yeah, maybe it was a long, slow ride downhill after this), Purple Rain, the album, spawned the iconic hits like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “When Doves Cry,” and let’s not forget the titular track—nearly nine emotional minutes that brings the album to a stunning and transcendental close.
Originally released in 1984, Prince himself oversaw a remastering of Purple Rain in 2015, though nothing happened with it during his lifetime. But now it’s time for everyone to cash in on his death, so the “deluxe reissue” of the album is the first official posthumous effort exhumed from the Prince vault by Warner Brothers and NPG Records.
Available in both two and three disc formats, the reissue (both editions) also includes a collection of previously unreleased and recently unearthed material—many songs among those long sought after by Prince devotees. The three disc edition tacks on a round up of both single and extended mixes, as well as Purple Rain-era b-sides.
Despite being over 30 years old at this point, the music from Purple Rain has aged rather well. I stop short of saying it has a timelessness to it—the dated synthesizers are definitely not ‘timeless’—however, because so many of the songs are just so good, it certainly has an ‘untouchable’ quality to it. The songs are held in such a high regard, the instant that first organ drone begins on “Let’s Go Crazy,” it makes you a believer. You can’t help not feel these songs.
Purple Rain is a slender album—only nine songs, sequenced to near perfection, and even ones that lean on the longer or more self-indulgent side do not overstay their welcome. There isn’t a ‘bad’ song on the record, but like many albums, there are songs that are executed more successfully than others. Of course, you’ve got the aforementioned hits, which may even extend beyond ‘untouchable’ into ‘unfuckwithable’ territory as far as how well they’ve held up.
“Take Me With You” hints at what Prince and The Revolution begin to explore sonically the next year with the maligned Around The World in A Day. The instrumentation is very similar, treading into a psychedelic pop atmosphere. The weird thing about “Take Me With U” is how, when it starts, it sounds very ominous and serious—the frenetic percussion and synth progression aren’t exactly friendly sounding. But then the song opens up its arms, and its pop sensibilities are undeniable.
Fun fact: at the time of his death, Prince was apparently working on his memoir. He didn’t get very far, though, so more than likely nothing will be posthumously published. The title was pulled from Purple Rain’s third track, the slow burning, powerful “The Beautiful Ones.” One of the album’s most visceral moments, Prince lays it all out on the line, shredding his vocal chords in the song’s tumultuous climax—only rivaled by the cacophony of the controversial at the time “Darling Nikki” (but by today’s standards, you know, it’s pretty tame.)
Recently, I realized there are a number of similarities between “Computer Blue” and Prince’s oddball 1989 hit, “Batdance.” I’m not sure if that was intentional on Prince’s part, or if it was just coincidental. “Computer Blue” is maybe one of the album’s weakest songs (there’s a patience testing 12 minute version on the second disc.) It’s not horrible, but there just isn’t a lot going on that is memorable—save for that dissonant feedback squall at the beginning and end.
Save for “Baby I’m A Star,” the b-side of Purple Rain is astounding in terms of its magnitude. Opening with the nervy, chilly, and stark realties of “When Doves Cry,” Prince and The Revolution waste no time before hitting you with the 1-2 punch as they follow it up with “I Would Die 4 U.” Infamously, the album concludes with the iconic title track—the kind of song you actually want to go on forever because nine minutes just isn’t long enough. From the chorus heavy, pensive guitar strums from Wendy Melvoin, to the otherworldly howling that comes from Prince as he wordlessly belts it out toward the end—“Purple Rain” is overflowing with catharsis, and it’s the kind of thing that only happens once in a lifetime.
Classic albums that are remastered and reissued are truly a dime a dozen these days, and the term “remastering” really may not mean much to some. Sometimes, it just seems like some engineer somewhere has gone and made the album you loved and probably already own a tad bit louder, and have asked you to buy it a second time.
That is, thankfully, not the case with Purple Rain. This thing sounds like a million bucks, and even if you already own a copy of the album, it is worth getting again simply to hear what 2015 production technologies and techniques can do to refresh something recorded over 30 years prior.
The original Purple Rain doesn’t sound bad, but by today’s standards, it sounds very antiquated, and for as much is going on in a lot of these songs, the whole thing is not very dynamic. Maybe that has to do with how I grew so used to hearing it on an old vinyl copy that I bought off my boss’ wife in college. But there is a noticeable, night and day difference when comparing this reissue of Purple Rain to the mp3s that you probably downloaded the day Prince passed away if you didn’t already have the album on your hard drive.
So what exactly does this edition of the album change, or update?
It adds a perceptible level of depth and richness to every song, and it unpacks the layers, giving every instrument a little more room to breath. A great example of this arrives early on with the clarity and crispness of the acoustic guitar in “Take Me With U.”
Outside of the remastered edition of the album proper, buying yet another copy of Purple Rain appeals specifically to the Prince completest due to the unreleased ephemera included on the second disc—flushing out the album (and Prince’s) mythology, the material doesn’t add or detract from the original nine songs. It gives a small glimpse into Prince’s creative process as a prolific singer and songwriter, and despite going on to release a lengthy double album within a short amount of time following Purple Rain, these additional tracks show that he could, when he wanted to, be a smart self-editor.
Strangely enough, the themes of technology and sex are both very present (and sometimes at the same time) on the second disc—colliding on the aforementioned and incredibly unhinged 12-minute cut of “Computer Blue” They also turn up in the self-indulgent opening “Dance Electric,” which wears out its welcome pretty quickly, and the collection’s “single,” the slow and slinky “Electric Intercourse,” which is one of this disc’s strongest pieces; the other of which is the Around The World in A Day-hinting psychedelic acoustic pop of “Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden,” a song that is among the least sensual and erotically charged of the bunch—a fact that, I believe, makes this one of the more interesting to listen to.
The second disc finds Prince at his most lusty, which is fine I guess, because as a listener we should be used to it, but it also gets to be a tad bit much—there is, after all, a song called “Wonderful Ass,” which serves as a precursor to the lengthy and strange “We Can Fuck,” which arrives shortly before the conclusion of this compilation.
Some of the songs unearthed from the Paisley Park vault could have maybe stayed in there—like “Velvet Kitty Cat,” which seems like a demo, or an unfinished sketch, and the tolerance grating “Possessed.”
After “We Can Fuck,” there is a stark juxtaposition as the second disc of Purple Rain ends with “Father’s Song,” the instrumental track only hinted at very briefly in the film. Here, it’s extended out to five minutes, and includes additional synth flourishes, providing longtime Prince fans with what they’ve wanted to hear for over 30 years. The melody for the piece itself was written by Prince’s actual father, John Nelson, and in the film, actor Clarence Williams III sits at the piano, performing a small part of it.
Included in the reissue package are brief liner notes compiled by the surviving members of the recently reunited Revolution, all of whom chime in, track by track, with small blurbs or anecdotes w/r/t the recording of Purple Rain. None of their comments are especially revelatory, but much like this reissue itself, it does offer a small look within the creative process of Prince around this time.
If Purple Rain is Prince’s “peak,” then one could argue that he peaked pretty early on—six years after his debut release. Yes, sure, there were hit singles or memorable songs from his subsequent albums, even into the beginning of the 1990s, before things got really tumultuous and weird for him—and sure, an album like Sign O’ The Times was critically heralded, and some of his latter day cannon sold pretty well, but Purple Rain could be the last time something was so widely accepted and embraced and remembered—moving beyond genre (funk, r&B, rock, pop) to create something entirely different that has become a powerful artistic statement that will live on another 30 years.
The reissue of Purple Rain is available now as a picture disc LP, 2xCD, and 3xCD set, via Warner Brothers and NPG.