Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

(Featured Image: Sean Young’s femmebot fatale, Rachael, in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982; © Warner Bros.)

Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album in early 1982–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since the 1979’s Prince. On April 28–two days after recording “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and a day after cutting an early version of his 1985 hit “Raspberry Beret”–he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in L.A. to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.

While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction musical tropes with an organically soulful melody and acoustic jazz piano.

This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.

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Review: Purple Rain, Deluxe Expanded Edition

Review: Purple Rain, Deluxe Expanded Edition

(Featured Image: Purple Rain “Deluxe Expanded Edition” cover; © Warner Bros./NPG Records)

I have to admit: it feels a little surreal to be writing about the deluxe edition (or “Deluxe Expanded edition,” as the case may be) of Purple Rain. This is a project I’ve been anticipating, conservatively speaking, since it was first announced over three years ago; more accurately, though, it’s something I’ve dreamed about for decades, since those not-so-distant days when the likelihood of Prince and Warner Bros. coming to an agreement over expanded reissues seemed to fall somewhere between the proverbial flying pigs and the proverbial Hell freezing over. So, I’ll admit, my perspective is biased: for me, the fact that this thing exists is in itself a kind of miracle. Any complaints I might have are colored indelibly by the knowledge that the last official collection of vintage Prince outtakes, 1998’s Crystal Ball, is older than many artists’ full discographies. Bands have formed, made it big, broken up, and reunited between now and the last time we got a peek inside the Vault; I think it’s important not to lose sight of that.

It is, of course, also important to call out the collection for its missteps, something I’ve seen many on social media doing. The most egregious of these, from my perspective, is the failure to credit Jill Jones for her backing vocals on “We Can Fuck”: whether made out of malice or plain sloppiness, it’s a damning omission. There are also the unavoidable track-listing quibbles that emerge any time the boundlessness of fan expectations come into contact with the restraints of physical media. Where, for example, is Prince’s version of “Wednesday,” or “G-Spot”–both songs known to have been considered for the Purple Rain album? Where is that extended version of “17 Days” that allegedly exists? And did anyone really need all of those single edits on Disc 3? If nothing else, the imperfections of the deluxe Purple Rain are a timely reminder that hardcore fans still need a healthy ecosystem of bootlegs beyond what’s made available to the mass market; indeed, as if to underscore that point, a trio of outtakes leaked the same day as the official release, including “Wednesday” and a version of “Our Destiny” with the aforementioned Jones on lead vocals. They’re well worth a listen (though, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t trade them for any of the tracks currently on the deluxe edition).

As important as bootlegs are, however, we still need official releases, too–and, for all its imperfections, this remains the best official archival release of Prince’s music to date. Leaving aside for a moment the question of what’s not on Disc 2, let’s reflect on what is: a full-length version of “The Dance Electric,” sounding better than on any circulating recording I’ve heard; “Love and Sex,” a storied outtake previously unheard by the vast majority of collectors; the extended “Hallway Speech” version of “Computer Blue,” again sounding better than ever; the studio version of “Electric Intercourse,” which until this year even the most respected Prince experts didn’t know existed. Not every track is an auditory gem: “Our Destiny,” “Roadhouse Garden,” and “Velvet Kitty Cat,” as many have observed, seem to come from the same, slightly hissy sources as the unofficial recordings that leaked last year. But the versions of “Possessed” and “We Can Fuck” here–hell, “We Can Fuck” alone!–are well worth the $25 current asking price on Amazon. Throw in a great-sounding “Wonderful Ass,” the extremely rare “Katrina’s Paper Dolls,” and an extended, almost Vangelis-esque “Father’s Song,” and we have an impressive overview of the scope of Prince’s musical output in 1983 and 1984. It may not be enough to placate the most hardcore fans and collectors, but it comes as close as any mass-market product can be expected to.

And, let’s face it: like Prince 4Ever before it, this package isn’t really for “us.” The people reading this blog, or posting on prince.org or any of the innumerable fan groups on Facebook, don’t need to be sold on Prince’s genius: quite frankly, they don’t need to buy another copy of Purple Rain, the new remaster of which sounds good (particularly on a phone or in the car), but is hardly essential. There is, however, a market for this collection, and I think it’s well-served overall. People who love the album Purple Rain, but haven’t heard any of the outtakes, are poised to have their mind blown by Disc 2; hell, there are some people who haven’t heard the 12″ version of “Erotic City,” and that’s mind-blowing in itself. And while I respect the fact that a lot of paisley heads still covet their VHS copies of Prince and the Revolution: Live!, let’s keep in mind that there are also multiple generations of fans for whom it’s a whole new experience–and, while the video remaster isn’t ideal, it’s still completely watchable, and a great addition to the set.

I’m not trying to be a corporate Pollyanna here–far from it, I’m a realist. And I also remember the first time I heard “Possessed,” and was transformed from a casual Prince fan into the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic who writes blog posts about all of his circulating recordings. This new edition of Purple Rain is going to cause that transformation in a lot more people (though, hopefully, not all of them will start blogs–I don’t need the competition). And if we want access to more Prince music, an expanded fanbase–one that is both wide and deep–should be important to everyone.

That’s why I recommend anyone reading this post to support, on some level, the release of Purple Rain deluxe. Obviously, no one should spend money on anything they don’t want to. If you don’t care about the single edits–and really, who can blame you?–go for the “regular” deluxe instead of the “Deluxe Expanded.” If you want some of the bonus tracks but not all, download the individual MP3s. Or, hell, stream them via your service of choice–whatever fraction of a penny NPG Records is paid per stream is still better than nothing. But whatever you decide, the sad truth of our capitalist society is that art, especially popular art, can’t exist on merit alone. If you want more of Prince’s catalogue to receive the archival treatment it deserves–even if you’re disappointed by this first attempt–then on some level, you’re going to have to vote with your dollar and support what we have. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great first step.

If you want to support this blog–which, in defiance of our capitalist society, does exist on merit alone–you can buy the Deluxe Expanded edition of Purple Rain (or anything else!) using our Amazon affiliate links.