Prince’s music remains so innovative that even old material sounds more advanced than anything currently on the market.
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way: Purple Rain is a monolith in music history, the all-time best pop movie soundtrack and an era-defining record that has been extensively catalogued and analyzed. It still retains all of its power; just listen to its bookending tracks to hear the twin peaks of hair metal before the fact: “Let’s Go Crazy” one of the top five stadium rockers and the title track, the undisputed king of the power ballad. The vocal and instrumental shrieks of jealous rage that splinter the cyber-croon of “Computer Blue” into the slinking, confrontational funk of “Darling Nikki” make for still one of the most beautifully jarring transitions this side of 1960s tape splices. And when His Royal Badness leans in close to the mic on “The Beautiful Ones” and whispers “If we got married, would that be cool,” it’s next to impossible not to shout the affirmative.
It all sounds as fresh today as it did in 1984, but in technical terms, it sounds a bit too much like it did in 1984. Prince’s steadfast forward motion has ensured that the version of Purple Rain heard by fans born well after its initial release date is largely what people heard on a CD produced that year. This is has left the record, and many other Prince albums, sounding anemic by modern standards, barely cleaned up for vast improvements in technology; put a song on a playlist with anything released (or re-released) in the last 15 years and it sounds muffled and distant in comparison.
At long last, and after years of delay, Purple Rain is out in a deluxe edition sporting a remaster that boldly throws this music into the modern context it never lacked on its compositional merits. You can hear a difference as early as the wedding organ intro of “Let’s Go Crazy,” which echoes more deeply and crests so thrillingly you feel like you’re being raptured. The shimmering synths of “Take Me With U” now explode with all the ecstasy they were meant to connote, giving full power to a track that previously only realized its potential when fed through movie theater speakers. The track also shows off the greatest beneficiary of this remaster: Brown Mark, whose bass no longer gets buried under all the acoustic and programmed drums and intersecting keyboards, can be heard laying down a warm, thick bassline underneath the brightness. Mark’s uncovered bass adds further filth to “Darling Nikki,” which sounds absolutely suffocating on this release. Every track on the album reveals new nuances, be it added keyboard fills amid the major synth and piano lines in “The Beautiful Ones” or the lurching bass notes that fill the tiny slivers of negative space in “I Would Die 4 U.”
The remaster is revelatory enough, but the deluxe edition also comes with two additional CDs, one of which includes a bevy of single mixes and b-side tracks. Most of the single edits of album cuts are here for completists’ sake (though the extended dance mix of “I Would Die 4 U” is a fascinatingly demented, triple-time work of pop dub). But there are absolute classics here, from the aching post-breakup longing of “17 Days” to the equally soulful “Another Lonely Christmas,” which epitomizes Prince’s odd notion of solitude in its simple arrangement that is then extensively multi-tracked and dubbed into a sonic wash as crowded as it is paradoxically isolating. There’s also the vocal version of “God,” which is so spacious and dreamy it could slot into the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack, as well as its stretched-out, instrumental rendition, propelled by a long, elegiac guitar solo that recalls Frank Zappa at his most elegant.
The king of the disc, though, is Prince’s all-time greatest song, “Erotic City.” Written in a fit of inspiration after witnessing a barnstorming P-Funk show, the track rides a loping, thunderous bassline in a mid-tempo funk disco that constantly circles back to a chorus that is defiantly filthy whether or not its lyrics are actually explicit. The track sounds like it’s constantly edging toward climax, only to pull back just enough to forestall release. Do not even bother with the 7” edit over the hypnotic, gyrating 12” mix; you wouldn’t want to finish too fast, would you?
Of course, the biggest draw is the promise of the first significant clearing of Prince’s vault in the wake of his death. Most of the tracks here will be familiar to diehard bootleggers, but never with such professional mastering. The selections here are judiciously made, opening with Prince’s demo of “The Dance Electric,” a sprawling psych-funk number that would be whittled down to single length and given to former bassist André Cymone. In this prototype version, the heavily gated Linn drums generate an unshakeable foundation onto which squelches of synthesizer and chicken-scratch guitar draw a demarcating line between Prince’s early, apocalyptic cyberfunk and his growing pop ambition. “Electric Intercourse,” a ballad cut from the album in favor of “The Beautiful Ones,” previously circulated from a live 1983 performance, but this overdubbed studio edit takes its quirky melody into even stranger terrain, abstracting Prince’s soulful singing with a time-warped slow dance of descending two-note synths and a clubfooted drag of a beat.
The complete “Computer Blue” is completely transformed from its truncating, punky album rendition into a deep dive into the corridors of Prince’s mind. Dubbed the “Hallway Speech” version for the extended recounting of a dream that dispassionately cuts through the slamming vamp of hard riffs and skittering keyboards, it’s one of those handful of Prince epics, like “Crystal Ball,” that plunges Prince’s carefully constructed art pop into such elaborate terrain that it cracks and reveals something of the man’s true self. The lesser tracks are every bit as invigorating: “Wonderful Ass” is one big non-sequitur of intersecting dance rhythms around distracted lyrics of unabashed ogling, while “Love and Sex” and “Velvet Kitty Kat” are the kinds of simple but delightful throwaways that Prince was writing, recording, overdubbing and mastering in the span of a single day around this time. “Possessed” is another stand-out; erroneously listed as the the 1983 first version instead of this slightly cleaned-up, overdubbed take from ‘84, the track has more shape than the original demo but is still an ultra louche P-Funk number for people who think that the only flaw in James Brown’s work is that he was too subtle. Finally, “Father’s Song,” containing a melodic line gutted for “Computer Blue,” appears in full, offering a melancholy but sweet alternate coda to the the sweeping release of the album’s title track.
To top it all off, the set comes with a blistering live show from a Syracuse gig in March of 1985 that was shot on VHS but pulls audio from a pristine soundboard recording that showcases the well-rehearsed, stop-on-a-dime chemistry of the Revolution at their peak. Check out the final salvo of a whole-damn-family rendition of “Baby I’m a Star” with members of the opening bands and even the musicians’ entourages on-stage, as well as a hyper-extended “Purple Rain” with enough solos to shame every ‘80s Van Halen wannabe. All of this adds up to a release that is less of a remaster or reissue than a rescue, which may seem like an odd thing to say about one of the most celebrated, widely heard albums of all time. But to hear this record’s new depths, and to get such a bracing glimpse into the fuller context of Prince’s runaway creativity and energy at his peak, is so thrilling that one’s mind immediately leaps to all the other records and hidden gems that could be served by work this good, such as the bass-heavy early funk records, the impossible densities of Lovesexy’s compositions or the possibility that the legendary Camille and Dream Factory aborted LPs might see the light of official release. Prince left so many albums and unreleased songs to languish in favor of his constant movement. The benign irony of this deluxe edition is that despite the artist’s death, his music remains so innovative that even old material sounds more advanced than anything currently on the market.