Certain Songs #521: Prince – “The Cross”

prince sign o the times Album: Sign o’ the Times
Year: 1987

I realize that nearly every one of the previous Prince songs I’ve written about were all huge iconic songs, so here’s a (relatively) deep cut for all y’all.

Coming out of nowhere to open side four of Sign o’ the Times, “The Cross” is probably my favorite Prince song, despite (or because!) The fact that it’s one of his most overtly religious from the get-go, as over a whisper-quiet acoustic guitar, Prince sings:

Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry, he is coming
Don’t die without knowing the cross

As a bare, near-psychedelic guitar starts weaving its way through the song, he continues:

Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There’ll be bread for all of us
If we can just bear the cross

Near the end of the second verse, a kick drum — a live one! — comes in on the 1’s & 3’s, every-so-slightly adding intensity.

We all have our problems
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the cross

And wham! A big crunchy electric guitar comes in, playing a rolling primitive riff over a suddenly full but still incredibly simple drumbeat and it’s like nothing else on any Prince album ever before. Somehow Prince has reconfigured The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus” as a, um, Velvet Underground song.

Worlds! Colliding! Meanwhile, as the rhythm guitar gets ever more full and noisy, the psychedelic guitar lead transmogrifies into what sounds like a sitar, but it couldn’t be a sitar? Though as tablas come in to play over the beat as well, it could actually be a sitar.

“The Cross” totally blew my mind in 1987. Not because Prince was doing a rock song, per se, but because he was doing a gospel song as indie rock. Or an indie rock song as gospel, as near the end, a huge choir of multi-tracked Princes gorgeously sang “The crosssssss” over (and after) all of the cacophony.

Obviously, I have no idea if Prince ever went down this musical path again — I certainly haven’t heard any other songs as rock raw as “The Cross”, but I would have loved a whole album of Prince doing garage rock with gospel harmonies.

For the longest time, I was conflicted about the fact “The Cross” was my favorite Prince song. That was because it was the Prince song that most sounded like a lot of my other favorite songs, and felt like a bit of an anomaly in his catalog.

But now I don’t think that matters: I’ve come to realize that Prince tried so many things that he’s probably written at least one song that crosses paths with pretty much everyone’s taste in music. Hell, I’m guessing that he’s even got a full-out country album somewhere in the vault. A good one!

“The Cross” performed live in 1987

Fan-made video for “The Cross”

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