(Featured Image: Joni Mitchell by Norman Seeff, 1976.)
Prince, as we’ve noted before, had a tendency to distance himself from his second album in the years following its release; he seemed to consider its unabashedly commercial nature a compromise of his artistic ideals. And while I don’t necessarily agree with those views–I think Prince holds up very well as an album, hit-thirst be damned–when I look at the first side of the record in particular, I can kind of see his point. It is, as much as For You had been, a transparent proof of concept for Prince as an artist, presenting in turn each distinct facet of his musical personality circa 1979: opening with the frothy pop-funk hit, following it up with the bid for rock credibility, then moving straight into the dance-club heater. It’s as if he sequenced the first half of the album specifically for the charts he wanted it to make: Soul, Top 40, Disco. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that track four, and the Side B closer, represented that other crucial component of his signature sound: the seductive R&B ballad.
As predictable as it might seem at face value, though, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is actually a pretty unusual track. Where later Prince ballads like 1981’s “Do Me, Baby”–actually demoed in early 1979 by André Cymone–sound like the archetypal post-Quiet Storm slow jams that they are, this song’s closest sonic precedent is “So Blue”: an oddball album cut from the second side of For You. Like that earlier song, “Close and Slow” owes as much of its ambience to folk-infused 1970s soft rock as to any kind of R&B; in particular, it’s another early signal of Prince’s artistic debt to Joni Mitchell.
Mitchell is a kind of ghost influence on Prince’s songwriting: she’s certainly less identifiable in his early sound than the likes of James Brown, Chaka Khan, or even Grand Funk Railroad. And yet she undoubtedly made a deep impression on him. The plainspoken yet poetic lyrical voice he would develop with songs like “Little Red Corvette” is unmistakably Joni-esque; and he would cover her 1971 song “A Case of You” in live sets from 1983 all the way to his second-to-last concert in 2016. Mitchell was also one of very few artists to be cited directly in one of his songs, with a namecheck and interpolation of 1974’s “Help Me”–cleverly doubling as an homage to 1971’s “This Flight Tonight”–appearing in his “Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” And then, of course, there’s the song we’re discussing today: the title of which was taken directly from a line in “Coyote,” the opening track of Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira.
All of this is obviously not to say that “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” sounds much like Joni Mitchell. I can maybe hear a bit of her downbeat, jazz-influenced late-’70s style in Prince’s arrangement, but it’s not as if Joni holds the patent on moody jazz undertones. What I detect of her in the song–aside from the winking homage of the title–is a much less definable presence. It’s more an abstract approach than a concrete sound: the kind of subtle, subliminal inspiration that can intimately shape the creation of a piece, without fully betraying its presence in the finished product. It calls to mind Prince’s 2016 assertion–made, appropriately enough, during a performance of “A Case of You”–of the importance of “the space between the notes,” a lesson he claimed to have learned from listening to Mitchell (Harris 2016). “She taught me a lot about color and sound,” he told MTV’s Michael Shore in 1985 (Shore 1985). That same year, in his Rolling Stone interview with Neal Karlen, he praised the Revolution’s keyboardist Lisa Coleman for playing “what the average person won’t. She’ll press two notes with one finger so the chord is a lot larger, things like that. She’s more abstract. She’s into Joni Mitchell, too” (Karlen 1985).
There’s certainly a lot of space between the notes of “Close and Slow”–though Prince fills them, not with Joni’s customary melancholy, but with a palpably seductive sense of tension. It’s easily the most intimate song on the album: his vocals are soft, almost whispered, as if he really is pressed up against the listener, murmuring in our collective ear (I’ll just try to ignore the fact that, taking height differences into account, his face would be roughly chest-level in an actual slow dance). The effect is such that you almost don’t notice when he shifts from soft-focus sweet nothings to something decidedly more direct, even pornographic: “I want to come inside of you / I want to hold you when we’re through / Can’t you feel my love touching you?” I have to admit: fan as I am of Prince’s dirty talk, that last line sounds just a little too much like late-’90s R&B trio Next’s dance-floor boner anthem “Too Close.” I’ll also join biographer Matt Thorne in suggesting that the first verse’s reference to “sex-related fantasy” sounds excessively clinical (Thorne 2016). But for my money, at least, these awkward fumbles are redeemed by the preceding line, “I can almost taste the thoughts within your mind”: an ineffably “Prince” lyric if ever there was one–and, I would argue, a sign that the lessons in figurative language he was taking from Mitchell went deeper than a stray line pilfered for his song title.
Of course, some of the credit for “Close and Slow”’s intimacy must also go to engineers Gary Brandt and Bob Mockler, both of whom separately assisted Prince in setting the mood. According to Brandt, they recorded the album’s vocal tracks by placing a microphone directly above Prince, “while he lay on a blanket beneath my piano”: an extension of the unorthodox techniques used by Chris Moon to get the artist comfortable back in 1976. “Close and Slow” also seems like the song that benefited most from Brandt showing Prince “a lot of different little echoes, delays, things that I don’t even think he knew about” (Nilsen 1999 55). The song’s cavernous reverb emphasizes its aforementioned sense of space, while the contrast between the soft acoustic guitar and loud, sonorous bass adds a dynamic ebb and flow to the music. During the mixing process, Mockler recalled, “I had to fade every bass note manually. I made the drums extra big on that one because I wanted it to have that pulse. Everything about the song is intimate and I just thought that contrasting that with this big drum sound, at least for those days, was a neat idea” (56).
“When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” doesn’t quite make my list of Prince’s all-time greatest ballads. It is, I think, a little too ethereal and insubstantial for that; it lacks the indelible hook of a “Scandalous” or an “Adore.” But in 1979, it was a significant step forward in his songwriting: a sign of even more impressive things to come. His second album may have been a shameless bid for commercial success; but this song, at least, showed how great Prince would be when he finally mastered the conventions of popular songwriting, and started in on stretching them to their limits.
(Note: Slightly edited this post to correctly attribute the “clinical-sounding” quote to Matt Thorne; I had initially credited Dave Hill by mistake.)