Electric Word Life: Track by Track with Purple Rain (Side 1)

Purple Rain (song)

Let’s Go Crazy

Every song on the first half of Purple Rain starts with sections that are irrelevant to the rest of the song. “Let’s go Crazy” has the longest one, a full minute of free associative pseudo-preaching over a trembling keyboard solo. Then the song kicks into an up-tempo rocker that, minus a couple of Bernie Worrell-esque synthesizer sounds, could almost be a Billy Idol track.The song is deliriously simple. There are four sections: the intro, the verse, a guitar break and a short chord change before the solo. The beat doesn’t change too much (gotta keep the party people dancing!) and taken individually, the guitar, bass and keyboard parts are  practically primitive. But the whole song is ornamented with weird electronic sounds and avalanches of electronic drums creating an extraordinary denseness of sound.

The lyrics are truly bizarre, too. Similar to “1999,” the song is about a celebration of freedom in the face of impending danger, which lead me to one of my grand unifying theories on the oddness of Prince:  I think Prince feels guilty about having fun. I think he needs to defend his choice of engaging in “pills and thrills and dafodills” with an excuse that he’s only indulging these desires in the face of an apocalyptic threat. It’s little wonder that he would later become a Jehovah’s Witness, probably the most anti-fun branch Christianity has.

The tension between Prince’s fun and anti-fun sides makes his music more interesting. Fighting the de-elevator and being excited because we’re all going to die is more compelling than a song about just having fun. The sinister element is a critical part of Prince’s appeal, and it makes him more truthful and real than he might otherwise be. In real life, fun is complicated. There’s always hangovers, uncomfortable post (and pre- and intra-) coital emotions, side effects, self-doubt, fatigue anger and more. At some point, we have to go to get back to being responsible and making sure our loved ones are taken care of and that the bills are getting paid. Also, to quote Prince’s fellow great midwestern pop fatalist Wayne Coyne, everyone you know someday will die: the party can only last so long.

Take Me With U

Any song is going to be a comedown after the apocalyptic energy of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The pillowy pop of “Take me with U” is a big crash, but one that’s necessary for pacing and for transitioning to the album’s slower songs.

But it’s pretty great, nonetheless. It’s remarkable, first of all, for having an acoustic guitar lying underneath all of its shimmering electronics. The synth line is a close cousin to “1999,” which is totally excusable—if I had written “1999,” I’d rip off myself off constantly.

Like other songs on the album, it has a strange, tense intro that has nothing at all to do with the rest of the song. It sounds like an excerpt from a John Carpenter soundtrack until the chimes drop.

I think the lyrics, intentionally or not, are pretty hilarious. He’s pretending to be a nice guy who doesn’t care about material things like where they go. In fact, he doesn’t care where they go because he only wants to have sex with the girl. Which is sort of like every straight guy on every date ever.

The Beautiful Ones

There are two terrible songs on this album. This is the first one. It’s a plodding ballad where Prince basically attempts to whine some woman into submission.

Of all the fake-out intros, this is the one that bothers me the most. The song opens with a slow beat and someone twisting the knobs on an analogue keyboard. For a second, it almost seems like Prince is about to launch into some serious krautrock style. Then it turns into a bad Lionel Ritchie song.

Computer Blue

Wow. Just wow. So we start in funky Devo town, then make a sharp left into avant Zappa-ville before hopping onto Miami Vice soundtrack highway before abruptly pulling into Queen’s Soundtrack to Flash Gordon city.

By the time this song is over I have always forgotten how it begins (I listened to it twice just to write this) which is weird, because it has the strangest fake-out beginning of the whole record: it’s the weird dialogue between Wendy and Lisa about whether the water is warm enough over a snappy funk beat and under screeching guitar feedback. Then there’s a jarring synthesizer chime and the song kicks in for real.

For the length of a verse, the song is the hardest electro funk on the album. A musically just OK and lyrically perplexing chorus follows (“Until I find a Righteous One, Computer Blue”—huh, what? That’s like a sentence made from those word magnets on a ‘90s college refrigerator) and then it’s like a funky prog rock song. But it never cycles back to the beginning sections, which seems like it would be a no-brainer. Choruses are usually the most memorable parts of songs and most songwriters try to repeat them as much as possible; it’s rare, if not unique that this song only performs the chorus once.

Instead, the song goes into two more awesome sections that are totally different from the awesome section at the start of the song. It’s sort of like the first time you see “From Dusk Til Dawn” and you’re like “oh, ok. So this is going to be a movie about vampires now.”

Anyway, I think I’ve used the word “then” at least 400 times in the preceding four paragraphs. That’s because the whole song is a series of “thens.”

Darling Nikki

Ugh. Terrible song number two.

This is the song that got Tipper Gore riled up enough about obscenity in pop music to call Dee Schneider to the Senate floor? Hearing it in 2011, it’s strikingly prudish. On the sexy music spectrum, it’s way closer to the Beach Boys than 2 Live Crew or even Nicki Minaj.

The line about “masturbating with a magazine” (which always makes me think of horrifying paper cuts) makes it seem like a real dirty song, but really, this is another example of Prince’s apocalyptic Christian anti-fun tendencies warring against his hedonistic ones.

The first clue that Prince disapproves of Nikki is describing her as “a sex fiend.” There are a lot of flattering ways to describe a hot-to-trot gal in a song (just ask the Rolling Stones or AC/DC); sex fiend isn’t one of them. The second clue is how little we know about Nikki other than her alleged sexual fiendishness and enthusiasm for pre-coital contracts. The third is the music itself.

This is one of the least sexy songs in Prince’s repertoire. It’s an undercooked sludgy tune, and creates a sense of dread that’s out of place for a song about a wild one-night stand.

And the one-night stand is incredibly dull. It’s like one of those HBO real sex documentaries with talking head interviews about condom stores. He meets the girl, they go to her castle (huh?) where she has all the sex toys money can buy. In lieu of foreplay, Prince signs a sexy, sexy contract. Nikki grinds, the castle spins. Then she’s gone the next day, except for a note with a telephone number.

So is Nikki a dominatrix? Does she own a lot of dildos? Did she get Prince really drunk? Does her room literally spin? What does grinding mean in this context? Did they even have sex at all?

Anyway. If you need to make room on your iPod, this is a good place to start. Also, maybe I’m the mayor of crazy town, but does the melody kind of line up with “Frosty the Snowman” or is it just me?

Check back tomorrow for side 2!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Electric Word Life: Track by Track with Purple Rain (Side 1)

  1. Pingback: “real ideals” (song recording) « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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