Purple Rain is still great, but the sound is terrible
Your copy of Purple Rain sounds terrible.That's no knock against the music, that urgent, neon, bug-funk zeitgeist bomb Prince straddled and launched and screamed on as it blew up the world -- kind of like what Slim Pickens did to that nuke in Dr. Strangelove, but with more cream. The music still stirs and kills and baffles. Purple Rain is so great that "Purple Rain" itself might not even be its best ballad.
A screenshot from Purple Rain.
It's a touchstone still worth touching, a critical and commercial smash that achieved what Kanye, Stevie, Michael, the Beatles and few others have managed. How often is the best record also the most popular record? Especially one this anguished, cryptic, even masturbatory? The key hit married sex talk with the late-night terror that you're turning into your parents. "Baby I'm a Star" is four minutes of 1984's best band working its hands in its leader's pants as he tells us what we already know. And the title track, Prince's attempt to write a Bob Seger song, still has literal-minded karaoke folks asking, "What the hell does that mean?" (Karaoke tip: Never sing "Purple Rain." Almost all versions of it cut off before the falsetto singalong you've been practicing in your shower.)
But for all that, your CD or MP3 version of Purple Rain -- an album that hit stores exactly thirty years ago -- is just a tiny, tinny hint of what the man and his Revolution actually unleashed.
You know the story about how Prince cut the bass track off "When Doves Cry," giving that hit -- maybe his greatest genius-humps-a-drum-machine solo job -- its spare, haunted feel? On our iPods and laptops and CD players, "When Doves Cry" hardly stands out; pretty much the whole of the album feels like it's been subjected to the same stripping away.
You can hear only a rumor of whatever Revolution bassman Brown Mark was laying down on "Let's Go Crazy," and there's no way you can feel it. Later, on "The Beautiful Ones," the growls and percolations of the synthesizers feel merely decorative rather than like some amniotic element in which the singer is drowning. Dare to turn "The Beautiful Ones" up loud enough for its waves of sound to wash over you with any power, and Prince's scream-o freakout at the end -- one of the best scream-o freakouts in all of pop -- will be so far in the red that you'll actually see that red: Your eyes will pop and bleed.
Has any album so great ever been allowed to sound so shitty for so long?
Seriously, back in the day, my dad dubbed the performance numbers from his VHS copy of the Purple Rain movie onto a high-end cassette tape. That tape still sounds better than the CD. Simply put: Non-vinyl versions of the Purple Rain album are like some beer you know will taste great but whose pour is half head.