In April 2016, after the tragic news came in of Prince’s passing, I shared simply the word “Delirious” on Facebook, hoping everyone knew what I meant, which some did. About four days to a week later, I got my next issue of The New Yorker in the mail, which had a purple cover full of raindrops falling, from top to bottom.
At this point though, still, it hadn’t really sunk in how much “Purple Rain” actually means to Prince’s discography. I still thought of him as “funky” (this new live album, for all its ephemeral and multifarious merits, will pretty much prove that he’s not), as in the gritty, street-wise “Sign o’ the Times” and the steely hearted, raucous “When Doves Cry.” Prince was RHYTHMIC, to me, still, the grandmaster of the zany, gleeful “Alphabet St.” and the horny, coked up but tight “Delirious.”
I would have slotted “Diamonds and Pearls” from 1992 as his best ballad to date but Prince and the Revolution: Live, which is the artist’s only listed live album on Spotify and seemed to just drop out of the sky this past Friday, showcases a 1985 concert, and so really positions itself rather early within his career for the endeavor of a “best-of” run-through in concert setting. But what will resonate with fans about this particular record is that, despite its staging only seven years into Prince’s career, this sucker is BIG, it’s grandiose, glamorous and it illustriously typifies “arena rock,” to a tee. Everything is dramatic and embellished, from the lengthened song versions (the album ends with a 19-minute “Purple Rain,” apropos of my introductory section there), to of course that seismic and gaudy Fisher Price snare sound we’ve come to know and love, or pretend we love, to Prince’s overtly sexual stage banter.
And look, I’m just going to come out and say it, as a ’90s guy through and through: this was the ’80s and folks it just wasn’t a time of great INSTRUMENTATION. Bad Brains and Sonic Youth, that is, arguably the two best bands of the decade, both leaned pretty heavily on “punk” ethos for their signature sound, each getting by without any sort of keyboard instrument. In being basically the sonic benchmark of the ’80s, that is, Prince sounds almost embarrassed of his eclecticism and seemingly feels the need to obstinately prove over and over that he’s not “artsy fartsy” like those crusty old bands like War and Sly & the Family Stone. He’s loose, playing the “gay” card when it’s convenient and generally saying as much lewd and devious stuff as he can get away with, which at this point in his career he did indeed have pretty lucidly on gauge. And so ultimately this live album epitomizes just the identity crisis you’d expect it to: yes Prince was vanguard in many ways and he was a great guitarist, but he was also undeniably poppy, known just as much for banal radio throwaways like “Raspberry Beret” and “Little Red Corvette” (probably his two most popular songs during the ’90s) as gritty street poetry a la “Sign o’ the Times” or the club bounce of “Partyman,” the song he put together for a Batman soundtrack in the ’80s.
Anyway, “Purple Rain” drags on fairly long in its own mopey skin but ultimately, I must admit, does carry a certain gravity and swagger that lets you know at least the artist who put it together still believes in it. Beyond that, one high point on this concert piece is emphatically “The Beautiful Ones,” for appropriately a similar reason to “Purple Rain”’s success which would be its broad, sweeping chord progressions and a sort of pristine, elegant guitar sound that Bruce Springsteen might have also summoned for his especially poignant moments. He**, it might even be the same exact guitar and set of amps, as far as I know. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me.
Elsewhere, the album bursts nicely out of the blocks with the string of “Let’s Go Crazy”; “Delirious” and “1999”; with “Little Red Corvette” being probably saved from staleness and mundanity, if nothing else, by its torpid and soft, modified verse section, representing a contrastive atmosphere for the arrival of the full-blown chorus section. Some fun, frenetic rocking gallops to the fore in the form of “Irresistible Bit**” and “Computer Blue,” but they’re also in fact hurt by the fact that they’re just not that FAMOUS — they simply don’t have the cultural clout to stand out in this collection as really emphatic. What’s more, Prince himself fails to showcase them amply, or his guitar skills in general, content to accentuate the selections from his catalogue that make for likelier radio fodder or soundtracks to make-out sessions. Still, give his purpleness credit for culling this whole bastard from one single concert, truly taking us inside the mind of a crazed seducer, in the process.