Last time, we touched upon how the spartan conditions and technical limitations of Prince’s North Arm Drive home studio helped lay the groundwork for what became his signature sound. This time, we actually have a concrete example to discuss: the sole ballad to appear on his 1980 album Dirty Mind, “Gotta Broken Heart Again.”
On paper, “Broken Heart” is familiar territory for Prince; its borrowings from the early 1960s soul music of artists like Sam Cooke recall the similar homages of songs like “So Blue” and “Still Waiting.” But those tracks had felt labored: as if Prince, not fully comfortable singing in a hand-me-down style, had overcompensated by loading up the mix with fussy and (in the case of “Still Waiting”’s pseudo-pedal steel) even self-mocking touches. Here, though, circumstances forced him to sit with the material and approach it on its own terms–and the result was his finest experiment with the style to date.
More than any other track on the album (save for “Sister,” but we won’t open that can of worms yet), “Gotta Broken Heart Again” is a minor masterpiece of economy and concision. The arrangement is as sparse as the previously-discussed “When You Were Mine”: just tinny-sounding live drums, electric bass and piano, trebly Telecaster, and Prince’s occasionally multi-tracked falsetto. In both cases, the demo-style simplicity feels at once retro and cutting-edge, evoking the four-track recording techniques of early ’60s R&B as much as the studied primitivism of early ’80s New Wave.
The same goes for the song’s bare-bones construction. Clocking in at two minutes thirteen seconds, with no real chorus, the two verses build up to the big moment when Prince wails the title phrase a final time. But the real impact comes immediately after, as the tension dissolves with a resigned sigh: “‘Cause once your love has gone away / There ain’t nothing, nothing left to say.” In one of the album’s more underrated “punk” moments, the last sound we hear is a loud, metallic clang–created, most likely, by Prince setting down his guitar while it was plugged in, though it sounds more than a little like the sound of a jail (guitar) door slamming shut.
Maybe because of its brevity and apparent slightness, “Gotta Broken Heart Again” tends to be overlooked in critical evaluations of Dirty Mind–understandable, I suppose, given the surfeit of instant classics elsewhere on the album. But I think it deserves more attention than it’s received. For one thing, it provides a much-needed breather at the end of the first vinyl side, before Side 2 launches into Prince’s most unsparing four-song sequence to date. It’s also an interesting thematic departure from the rest of the record, catching Prince in a moment of vulnerability between his libertinish routine of blowjobs, threesomes, and backseat trysts. The wistfulness of “Gotta Broken Heart Again” is what I associate most closely with Dirty Mind’s iconic back cover shot by Allen Beaulieu (see above): Prince reclining on his back against a graffitied wall, looking as forlorn as a boy in a trenchcoat and Y-fronts can possibly be.
The song did at least get its due in concert, where it took its place as the first breather in the set for the early 1981 Dirty Mind tour: acquiring new theatrical flourishes to coax screams from the girls in the audience (see the video above), as well as a new, uptempo sister song, “Broken” (more on that later). It was later resurrected as an almost unrecognizable jazz standard on the One Nite Alone… tour, with one December 2002 performance showing up on the DVD Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas. But I’m a purist, and the version I hold dear is the one Prince recorded all by himself, in his shitty little home studio on Lake Minnetonka. More than any other song we’ve talked about, “Gotta Broken Heart Again” is the one that got Prince to embrace minimalism and strip his craft to its barest essentials. Without it, we wouldn’t have even more beloved classics like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”–and that, in itself, is a reason to be glad it exists.
I know it’s taken me forever to post this, but I haven’t been completely idle–I already have two podcast episodes in the can for the coming weeks! I’ll also do my best to write the next post more quickly than I wrote this one. Thanks for your patience, everyone.