It sounds so very dumb now, but for years and years I just couldn’t get into quote-unquote older music (music released prior to like… 1990). The best explanation I have for my resistance is that I felt that older music sounded ‘dated,’ as circular of an argument as that is. Obviously, recording equipment wasn’t as advanced as it is now, which certainly changes the overall feel of the music, but a lot of music recorded in 60s and 70s has a lived-in quality that you don’t hear as often nowadays. For whatever reason, I just didn’t get it.
There were a few albums that slowly chipped away at my brain block: the merging of organic and synthetic sounds on “Abbey Road,” the impossibly catchy folk crooning of Gordon Lightfoot, the impressive vocals and depressive lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” But there was one album that completely shattered my weird aversion, one that could’ve been released today or ten or twenty years into the future and still sound vital and luxurious.
As it were though, Prince’s “Purple Rain” was released in 1984, as a soundtrack to the movie of the same name, starring Prince. The film is a musical and was, per Wikipedia, ‘developed to showcase Prince’s talents’ (and it certainly does that!). The movie is fine, bordering on good. The soundtrack, though, is something else. So much has been said about the excellence, enormity, and passion that is so evident in “Purple Rain” that it’s going to be near impossible for me to say anything original.
The stakes of “Purple Rain” are set high immediately: ‘dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called LIFE,’ Prince pronounces from the heavens on opener ‘Let’s Go Crazy.’ Everywhere on “Purple Rain,” Prince tackles the big questions with even bigger sounds, merging rock and R&B and pop and psychedelia to create orchestration so lush and full that even 20 listens in you’ll be finding new bells and whistles to fawn over (personal favourite: the skittering drum machines on ‘I Would Die 4 U’). “Purple Rain” is expansive enough to contain musings on love, death, God, loss, sex, and fame and not feel strained in the slightest – the album is effortless and glossy even when the emotional dial gets turned to 11.
I came across this album when I was living in Calgary for the first time, 18 years old and by myself. It became a daily routine for me to listen to “Purple Rain” on my 45-minute commute from the south end of the city to downtown. It became a close companion for me during this time – there’s a song for every occasion on “Purple Rain.” And although the album tries out every genre, it’s still a cohesive whole because of the allure and talent of Prince. Whether he’s longing and screaming, like on the him-or-me freakout ‘The Beautiful Ones,’ getting funky on ‘Computer Blue’ or causing Tipper Gore to invent the Parental Advisory sticker on ‘Darling Nikki,’ Prince is in perfect control of the band, his emotions, and the listener.
“Purple Rain” is genius because it was able to merge styles and be experimental without losing any of its immediate accessibility. Much has been made about the lack of bass guitar in the album’s hugely successfully lead single ‘When Doves Cry,’ but the drum machines and canned brass on ‘Baby I’m A Star,’ and the gospel flourishes on ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘I Would Die 4 U’ are marvels in their own right.
“Purple Rain” is Prince in total command of his music, yes, but also of his entire aesthetic. From the floral motif on the album’s cover (the only Prince styling that I’m cool enough to adopt into my own life) to his use of the music video to promote his music, a novel concept in 1984, Prince knew how to capture the listener’s attention using methods that complemented the strength of the collection of songs. “Purple Rain” is the whole package, a laser-focused blast from the mind of a singularly talented artist and visionary. And although Prince was always a larger than life figure from the explicit and androgynous “Dirty Mind” era to his amazing Super Bowl performance and late-period secrecy, “Purple Rain” stands alone, even in his unimpeachable discography, as a testament to the power of Prince and his music.