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Gangster Glam and Voyeurism: Prince - "Thunder"

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Monday, Sep 23, 2013
Prince's Diamonds and Pearls is a ridiculous album, in many extremely pleasurable ways, and "Thunder" is a suitably ridiculous way to begin it.
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Prince and the New Power Generation

Diamonds and Pearls

(Warner Bros.; US: 1 Oct 1991; UK: 1 Oct 1991)

“Thunder” opens Diamonds and Pearls with a moment of grandeur and bombast, one playing into Prince’s longtime interest in combining spirituality and sexuality. The first thing you hear is Prince’s voice multi-tracked to almost resemble a chorus, a feeling echoed by the stern tone in which he sings, “Thunder / All through the night / Promise to see Jesus in the morning light / Take my hand it’ll be alright / C’mon save your soul tonight.”

It’s pure drama, proclaiming an emergency. The call to “save your soul” because of some impending doom is present in the music, too, ominous and vaguely religious at times. Prince sings as if he’s spinning a mythological tale, though if you really listen it seems to be basically a one-night-stand, with a woman in his bed who he sees as either a “sweet savior” or “the devil in disguise”. But then at the moment of climax, things get stranger, as she is an “it”, possibly named Love, which proclaims, “Only the children born of me will remain!” Is that Jesus demanding obedience, a woman proclaiming her hold over him (in the form of children), or something else? There’s also a point where he utters, almost under his breath, “Don’t do it like that / Do it like this”, making us wonder who he is talking to – is he giving love-making instructions, or is that the voice of God, mocked as a tyrant? Or is that Love’s sweet voice telling him how to behave?
  
At nearly six minutes’ length, the song builds some strange guitar sounds into its mix, leaving time for Prince to play around even within a song with a determined course of its own, a sense of panic even. About halfway through, Prince’s voice goes through some arpeggios again designed to resemble church, and some hand-clap and vocal-chorus moments flowing from the same. His guitar solo brings in some vaguely Middle Eastern touches—sort of the equivalent of an obvious film-score cue for a belly dancer—and lets him ride the song’s basic sound and groove for an extra couple minutes. The final wind-up and down evokes another Hollywood trope, too: haunted-house organ music. He’s traveling through old Hollywood genre tropes, all within a 911 call of a song that simultaneously is asking us if we’re ready for a party, with a new band that can jam.

You’ll notice I say “he” and “him” but also talk about a big sound and a chorus of voices. Beside marking a dramatic entrance, with Hollywood genre touchpoints, the song is most notable because it’s the lone track on the album with the credit “all instruments and vocals by Prince”. The album is his first billed to him and his new band, yet instead of introducing us to that band, he’s standing alone, while emulating the sound of a band. It’s in some ways the song with the biggest, most layered sound, yet it’s the one without the group. This is part of the album’s dichotomy, between bandleader and band, the individual and society, but it’s also a small joke/trick within an album with a lot of them. An early pre-release version of the album didn’t include this song but started instead with “The Flow” (a song eventually released on the next album). Opening with a grandiose statement of self/sex/philosophy, vague as it is, sets this up as a much different album, one with its own inherent sense of drama. Diamonds and Pearls is a ridiculous album, in many extremely pleasurable ways, and “Thunder” is a suitably ridiculous way to begin it.


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