Jack Riedy is so lonely without you here.
Last week, Prince’s estate and Warner Bros. Music released “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the original version of a song turned into a worldwide hit by Sinead O’Connor in 1990. (As someone born in the mid-’90s, I first encountered it as part of a Girl Talk album, so I have trouble hearing it without mentally inserting profane rap lyrics.) O’Connor heard it on its first release, track six on side project The Family’s self-titled with vocals by Paul Peterson a.k.a. St. Paul. Prince’s original version, new to the public, was recorded in 1984 at the Flying Cloud Drive warehouse in the Minneapolis suburbs. Only Prince and engineer Susan Rogers attended the initial session. According to the estate’s official vault archivist, he discovered the two-inch tape reel a few weeks ago, then digitized and mixed it for release.
The Prince version begins with eerie and enticing keyboard chords over a marching beat. The slightly modulated DX7 gleams like plastic fresh out of a press. Power chords crash in on the offbeat, like the curtains being pulled open on a rock opera finale. It feels like the last scene of sci-fi camp classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like the gender-bending extraterrestrial Dr. Franknfurter awaiting escape or extinction with his eye shadow dripping into the pool, Prince’s narrator is wallowing in loss “seven hours and thirteen days” later.
The camp in “Nothing Compares 2 U” stems from the song’s narrator. Even as he grieves for the end of a relationship, he’s comically pompous. “I know that living with me is sometimes hard,” he admits, “but I’m willing to give it another try.” In one line, he reveals the ego that scared his lover away as well as the pride too strong to actually apologize for it. It’s a great characterization of male self-inflation.
That ego was underplayed by O’Connor and Peterson’s comparatively soft renditions, but Prince sells it with a smirk in his voice. Elsewhere, he notes that his doctor told him “You better try to have fun no matter what you do,” and that all the flowers the lover planted died when they left. Like Dorothy Parker’s bubble bath or Darling Nikki’s magazine, they’re exaggerated details visible through the purple fog settled over every scene.
In any incarnation, “Nothing Compares 2 U” has very little groove. The song “Purple Rain” was inspired by straightforward rock ballads of the era by Bob Seger and Journey. According to saxophone player Eric Leeds, Prince referenced similar sources for this track. “I remember Prince asking me for a Clarence Clemons kind of solo, which immediately put me in a bad mood. No rock and roll here!” he said. “So I gave him an Eric Leeds solo, and he dug it.”
Prince was evidently impressed enough to work with Leeds through 2003, on solo albums, live shows, and even lead player on two anonymous instrumental albums as Madhouse. The sax solo, presented here without distracting effects, adds soul to the track through its willingness to dart around the beat. Leeds also adds an ironically cheery countermelody on the last chorus, an Easter egg buried in the mix.
The simple titular chorus peaks and falls like cresting waves. It’s perfectly beltable, no matter if it’s played on a car radio or in a crowded karaoke bar. Like “Purple Rain,” the finished song sits comfortable on the borderline between rock, pop, country, and soul. No wonder that artists as distinct as Chris Stapleton, Chris Cornell, Dixie Chicks, and Maxwell covered it in tribute.
Since Prince’s tragic death two years ago, archival releases have been surprisingly rare. The estate has only put out a 1999-era track attached to a greatest hits and a second disc appended to last year’s Purple Rain reissue. (With dance mixes, b-sides, and unreleased cuts, Purple Rain makes a great double album.) They’re safe choices from the Artist’s commercial peak. Judging by the estate’s legal turmoil, Prince’s vault will likely be completely plundered by the listening public like Michael, Biggie, and Pac’s before him. Especially for an artist known for his agency, it’s troubling, but outtakes of this caliber help ease the guilt. At least we’re keeping the lights on at Paisley Park.