Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.

Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.