In the wake of Prince’s death, Worldmusicfests’s staffers and contributors are looking back on some of their favorite albums by the beloved icon. Check back this week to relive the Beautiful Ones with us.
Parade is one half of my favorite Prince album. Ideally, the other half might’ve been 1985’s Around the World in a Day, another fantastical and conceptually messy effort with peaks that spike up like EKG readings, whose sprawl yearns to burst past the ropes rung around its 40-something-minute runtime. Or it might’ve been the usual array of B-sides, remixes, half-songs, and other musical ephemera littering the cutting-room floor around Parade’s final 12 tracks — the album was initially conceived of as a double-LP, and the Purple Faithful have spent a good many hours trying to help the set reach its full potential as such. Either way, the collection confounds and delights in equal measure as the most fascinatingly ill-fitting work of Prince’s first decade, a puzzle made up of nothing but edge pieces, whose final image is even more breathtaking for its lack of coherence.
Considering its origins, it’s hardly surprising that Parade turned out as tangled as it did. The album was released in the spring of 1986 as the soundtrack to Prince’s upcoming second feature film, Under the Cherry Moon, which would turn out to be exponentially more incomprehensible than its musical accompaniment. The movie was set in France and released in black-and-white (despite being shot in color), and starred Prince as a piano-playing con man who falls in love with one of his marks. It was also directed by its star — after MTV auteur Mary Lambert left due to creative differences — and under the first-timer’s guiding hand, Cherry ended up as an awkward co-approximation of Casablanca, the party scenes from The Great Gatsby, and a Tom & Jerry cartoon. It was a comedy that wasn’t funny, a love story with no romance, a period piece of indeterminate time and place. (It was also surprisingly chaste for its notoriously horny lead — even Prince’s shirtless roughhousing with the Time’s Jerome Benton has more sexual charge than his static love scenes with co-star Kristin Scott Thomas.)
You could call Under the Cherry Moon a failure — it tanked at the box office, won five Razzies, and deserved most of them — but that would imply that it was trying to be something it wasn’t. It’s hard to tell if Prince was really trying to do anything with the movie beyond playing out his long-simmering Jazz-Age and Old-Hollywood fantasies with a big-studio budget, while telling a story whose overarching themes of love’s supremacy over financial or physical concerns probably made more sense in his head. Indeed, Cherry Moon bore out that Prince was too autocratic a visionary to make sense as an actor/director. Purple Rain worked because it was essentially a string of connected music videos, relying more on its star’s magnetism as a musical performer than as a theatrical one, but his attempts to sew together a conventionally structured and plotted film revealed him to be too far removed from mortal logic to make a movie translatable to the Less Purple. Consequently, the whole movie carries the foggy feeling of Prince trying to describe a convoluted dream he had the night before.
Luckily for Prince, concepts of narrative consistency and leveled pacing are far more integral to the film medium than the album. Parade is just as erratic as the movie from which it derives — though tracks bleed into one another like a concept LP, there’s no explanation for most of the transitions. Why does “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” a “Magical Mystery Tour”-like psych-pop intro to the album’s weird world, fold into “New Position,” two minutes of austere porno funk with a percussion track like Prince’s much-beloved sound of rain hitting a barn roof? Why does it take five tracks to get to the first song — the bluesy, NPG-predicting jam “Girls and Boys” — that doesn’t feel like an interlude? Why is the Maurice Chevalier-like showtune saunter “Do U Lie?” sandwiched in between the set’s most obvious contemporary pop numbers? The album mostly mirrors the song order from the movie, but not so explicitly that Prince couldn’t have given himself more wiggle room with the track order if he wanted to craft an album that didn’t induce 11 different counts of whiplash.
Eventually, though, the whiplash becomes the point: Parade is a fascinating exercise in what happens when an album never lets you get comfortable in its universe. Every transition is a newly jarring one, but those bumper-car passages end up focusing your attention on each individual track, allowing them to reverberate in ways they might not have otherwise. So when the clouds part from the dolorous film-score instrumental “Venus De Milo” and the massive synths of “Mountains” — a rare full-Revolution appearance on Parade, and maybe Prince’s lone A-side of the decade that could rightly be called “underrated” — come zooming in, the effect is jaw-dropping. Prince’s ’80s albums served as experimental test cases for how best to position singles on your LPs: 1999 rattled them off one at a time from the top, Purple Rain spaced them evenly and symmetrically throughout, Sign o’ the Times overwhelmed them on all sides until it was impossible to tell which they even were. Parade, by contrast, lays them out like land mines — you never see them coming, but when they hit, they absolutely explode.
And the biggest of those explosions, of course, comes from one of the greatest songs in the history of pop music. By the time “Kiss” shows up on Parade, three tracks from the end, your head has been spun around so many times you forget that it’s even coming. But then he detonates that one-chord guitar intro, the beat’s zero-gravity bounce lands — courtesy of Mazarati, the satellite band that His Purpleness originally donated “Kiss” to, before deciding it was too good and taking it back — and Prince’s all-time best vocal commences. Some of the song’s lyrical instructions (“My love will be your food”) and cultural reference points (“You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude”) have dated worse than others, but the funk is timeless and immeasurable; Prince’s superhero falsetto grinding against the gyrating beat until they explode all of Krypton with sexual release on the final chorus. Smoothing the buildup to (or comedown from) “Kiss” would be about as easy as trying to conceal a gigantic mid-day erection, and it’s a testament to Parade’s evil genius that it doesn’t even try.
“Kiss” may be the album’s obvious climax, but its proper closer is nearly as stunning. Following the low-stakes, bass-popping growl of “Anotherloverholenyohead” (also a single for some reason), the dewy-eyed swan song “Sometimes It Snows In April” arrives to offer Parade the dramatic resolution we had no idea it even needed. The ode, given new resonance by Prince’s real-life rainiest-month demise, laments the tragic passing of Tracy — presumably the Christopher Tracy of the opening track, and Prince’s role in Cherry Moon, though no other song on the album further develops or even mentions the character — over weeping piano and plucked acoustic. It’s a totally unearned moment of catharsis, but Prince somehow merits it just the same, through the song’s gorgeous harmonies and ivory twinkles, vivid title metaphor, and a devastating vocal performance in which the audibly choked-up singer taps into emotional reserves he evidently had no access to on the set of the defiantly flat Cherry Moon. (In the film, Prince delivers “April” non-diegetically as a eulogy to his own Tracy character, one of many perplexing musical cues to make it clear that Parade is better understood without any help from its accompanying film.)
I couldn’t help but think of Parade last weekend when another universally beloved pop star dropped their own ____ade album, with unconventional pacing, and self-starring film accompaniment. Beyoncé’s project was much more neatly orchestrated than Prince’s, and much less thorny to its audience, but the works share an attitude of “I’m going to do this how it makes sense to me,” putting the artists’ own satisfaction well before that of critics or fans. And while I imagine that means both works will eventually be less-remembered than their more crowd-pleasing predecessors, they’ll also be the records you’ll be more likely to put on when you yearn to greater understand who the people behind them actually were. In relating Parade’s mystifying and thoroughly incomplete story, Prince actually told us more about himself than on any previous album.