SONG TITLE: THE CROSS
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1987
COMMENTS: “The Cross” [from the Sign O’ the Times album] is (along with “7”) Prince’s best charismatic Christian number. The man has a good sized stack of overtly Christian testimonial songs scattered amongst albums of songs about, well, you know, Prince stuff: sex and ego – exactly not traditional Christian ideals. Nonetheless, he makes the most convincing Christian music of his generation: “Sweet song of salvation/ a pregnant mother sings/ Her kids live in starvation…Soon all of our problems will be taken by… The Cross.” Way more real than Stryper, God knows.
One of the ways in which this song is exceptional in the Prince catalogue is that it absolutely is not funky. For all the broad stylistic ground he covers, almost every song is at least broadly built on and against post James Brown r&b dance music. There’s not a hint of that here.
This song is instead built roughly on the “Stairway to Heaven” model. Simple melody delivered as ballad, and then cut loose with the metal. The song structure / dynamics are obviously Zeppelinesque, but the distorted blues stylings, the throb of it, is much more Hendrix like. Then there are all the little Prince things that come from, well, Prince alone.
Those little Prince things, the unique musical traits that make his work personal and memorable, most often come from his careful attention to detail. This goes back to the “chamber music” argument. The precisely dull thud of the drums, and the exact dramatic entrance into the original quiet soundscape: “…if we can just bear..[BOOM] The Cross.” Every note of this recording counts. The tempo is only medium, but the big bass boom on every beat sets up a quiet but desperate anxiety. The sitar sounding riff puts its own little hippie spin on things. The raw blues guitar chords are thundering around like the 10 headed beast from Revelations roaming the earth, or the Man from Mars eating bars and cars, or whatever.
Then, after all that apocalyptic death and destruction, the final crowning detail: the brief glimpse of the heavenly choir that ends the record. It lasts less than ten seconds, but suddenly the guitars and drums, everything worldly is stripped away, and we have Jesus’ own choir giving multi-part harmony to just the title.
Freakin’ ay! I’ll have whatever he’s having.
I might also add that the movie version of the album works surprisingly well. It is basically a live staging of the album, with some fancy dancing, and just a little bit of curious added staging, but 95% music.
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