Ephemera, 1984

Nothing Compares 2 U

Much like “I Feel for You,” “Nothing Compares 2 U” grew in stature after it left Prince’s orbit.

Last week, I made my long-awaited, surreal, exhausting pilgrimage to the Twin Cities to attend the Prince from Minneapolis conference and Paisley Park’s Celebration 2018. I have complicated feelings, which I’m still processing–and will continue to do so, with the help of some other people who were there, on the podcast in the coming weeks. For now, though, I have some basic reactions to Celebration, and to the newly-released Prince song that was debuted on the event’s first day.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Celebration coming in–reports of last year’s event suggested a combination music festival, fan convention, and cult indoctrination–but in my experience, it was basically a corporate retreat for hardcore Prince fans. There were hours of panel discussions with ex-band members Gayle Chapman, Dez Dickerson, Matt Fink, and Bobby Z; photographers Allen Beaulieu, Nancy Bundt, Terry Gydesen, and Nandy McLean; and dancers Tomasina Tate and, um, Wally Safford. There were screenings of Prince concerts from the Piano & A Microphone, HitnRun 2015, and–via the associated “Prince: Live on the Big Screen” event at the Target Center–Welcome 2 America tours. There were live performances by Sheila E, fDeluxe (née the Family), and a (fantastic) new supergroup of New Power Generation alumni dubbed the Funk Soldiers. And, of course, there was the debut of the music video for Prince’s previously-unreleased studio version of his pop standard “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Sinéad O’Connor’s music video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” 1990.

The story of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a familiar one. Prince wrote the song for the Family’s self-titled album, with basic tracking completed at the Flying Cloud Drive Warehouse in Eden Prairie on July 15, 1984. As with the other songs on the album, vocals by Family singers “St. Paul” Peterson and Susannah Melvoin were added later, along with a string arrangement by Clare Fischer and a saxophone solo by Eric Leeds. The Family’s original recording was released as an album track in August of 1985, to a more or less indifferent public.

Much like “I Feel for You,” however, the song grew in stature after it left Prince’s orbit. The stark, emotionally fraught 1990 version by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor–recorded, supposedly, at the behest of Prince’s jilted former manager Steve Fargnoli–was a worldwide Number 1: allowing O’Connor to break all too briefly into the mainstream, and vastly outperforming Prince’s own “Thieves in the Temple.” Understandably chagrined, Prince responded by “reclaiming” the song on the Nude tour; he would ultimately release his gospel-infused version, recorded live in January 1992 as a duet with NPG co-vocalist Rosie Gaines, on 1993’s The Hits compilation.

Each of these previously-released versions have their defenders, but the common knowledge that Prince had laid down his own guide vocals while recording the Family track gave the nagging impression that “Nothing Compares 2 U” was a standard without a definitive interpretation. Until recently, I was partial to O’Connor’s almost by default; St. Paul’s vocals on the original lacked soul, while Prince’s and Rosie’s almost-too-soulful sanging on The Hits had a tendency to obscure the song’s emotional heft. By the aftermath of Prince’s passing in 2016, when “Nothing Compares” became an obvious choice for tributes by everyone from Chris Cornell to Maxwell to Sampha, I’d started to appreciate the idea of the 1984 demo as an inaccessible Platonic ideal: locked away somewhere in the Vault, quite possibly never to be heard.

Posthumous music video for Prince’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” 2018.

Maybe that’s why, when Prince’s “Nothing Compares” emerged via, ahem, unofficial channels late last year, I wasn’t exactly blown away. His demo was unquestionably more heartfelt than the Family’s (sorry, Paul) and subtler than The Hits’ (ditto, Rosie), but it didn’t feel like the revelation I wanted it to be. I gave it a few cursory listens, moved on to the next newly-leaked gem (most likely the extended version of “17 Days”), and didn’t give it much more thought until the first night of Celebration on Thursday, April 19.

It probably should have been a letdown. Wally, the event’s de facto emcee, assured us that the footage he was about to screen “hadn’t been released,” but this wasn’t strictly true: not only had the song been in circulation on the bootleg market for months, but the accompanying video had also been posted hours earlier, meaning that many of us on Track 2 of Celebration had already watched it. For a few seconds, I came perilously close to griping–but only for a few seconds. The video, a compilation of excellent-quality rehearsal footage of Prince and the Revolution circa 1984, is an absolute treasure: a much-needed palliative to the depressing deluge of information from the investigation of Prince’s death released that same day, capturing the artist at his most charismatic, playful, and full of life. Seeing it on the big screen–in Paisley Park’s soundstage, no less!–was one of the most heartwarming moments in a four-day event with no shortage of such emotional appeals.

© NPG Records/Warner Bros.

Maybe it’s just because of that context, or maybe it’s because I’ve finally given it the hearing it deserves, but Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” has now officially supplanted Sinéad’s as my preferred version. His vocals are perfectly understated, lending just the right depth of feeling to some of his most evocative lyrics: the “seven hours and thirteen days / Since you took your love away,” the flowers dying in the backyard, the well-meaning but ill-taken medical advice to “have fun no matter what you do.” The arrangement feels like it could have made a hit for Prince if he’d been so inclined: right down to Leeds’ sax, which bursts out of the gate like a Clarence Clemons solo in all its mid-’80s glory.

There was also something poetic about the way “Nothing Compares” cropped up again and again throughout the event, subtly tying the various live and archival performances together into a recurring theme. It was there in Prince’s emotional solo piano set, the second of two gala shows from January 21, 2016; in a time-bending duet between 2011 video footage of Prince and the flesh-and-blood Shelby J at the Target Center; in, perhaps most moving of all, a rendition by fDeluxe that brought the whole thing full circle and singlehandedly redeemed St. Paul’s tepid original vocal performance.

Much like with “Moonbeam Levels” back in November of 2016, the estate released the right music at the right time; it was surely not lost on them that a “#NothingCompares2U” hashtag would be trending on social media at the same time that thousands of fans, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, were reflecting on how nothing compares 2 Prince. And whatever else one thinks about Celebration or the estate, I’m pretty sure Prince would have approved. Decades after ceding the song to the Family and Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” now belongs thoroughly to the man who created it.

(Thanks to Arno in the comments for letting me know that the Fischer strings are still on the newly-released version of the song, just too low in the mix for my rotten ears to notice at first listen.)

“Nothing Compares 2 U”
(The Family, 1985)

“Nothing Compares 2 U”
(Sinéad O’Connor, 1990)
Amazon / Spotify / TIDAL

“Nothing Compares 2 U”
(Prince and the New Power Generation, 1992)
Amazon / Spotify / TIDAL

“Nothing Compares 2 U”
(fDeluxe, 2016)

“Nothing Compares 2 U”
(Prince, 2018)
Amazon/ Spotify / TIDAL

5 replies on “Nothing Compares 2 U”

“The arrangement, lacking only Clare Fischer’s ethereal strings from the Family version,”
The Clare Fischer arrangement is there, but unexplicably hidden away. If only they could have mixed it like it is on The Family album, it would have been so much stronger. As it is, for me, it’s a tie between the version of Prince and The Family.

Sinead’s version, to my ears, is just all kind of wrong. And I just don’t think the song is an apology song to a mother, like she somehow made it. (did she not understand how to translate the “momma” who planted the flowers to something she would call her lover?) It’s one of the reasons why I feel her version is not very good (much like the overproduction, something made even worse in the Prince/Rosie Gaines version).

Happy to hear new material coming out, I’m hoping we’ll get better stuff as time goes on.

Ah, just listened again with headphones and you’re totally right–the strings are there, just way buried in the mix! Weird. I kind of like the power ballad feel with the guitar, etc., but do wonder what it would sound like if it was closer to the Family’s more ethereal mix.

And yes, totally agreed about the new material–I’m curious whether this will be part of that project announced for September and if it will be more 1983-84 material, or if that will be something totally different. I’m honestly fine with whatever, just keep it coming!

Thanks for this Zach. It is an excellent analysis and I think the newly released video just added to everyone’s current emotional overload. I do agree that with this he has finally reclaimed it as his own.

Prince always did the best versions of his own songs because he knew the place from where they came! Can’t wait to hear your podcast take on all this…maybe the message was exactly as he said, that he had done everything he came to do, mission completed, on to the next level… the mysteries of the human condition. Peace and love eternal.

It did strike me during Celebration how many lives this guy lived…like yes, he died relatively young, but with the amount of work he created, even just the amount of time he was awake, it was really enough for multiple lifetimes. Still tragic that he died when and how he did, but it gives me some closure that he did so much with his time on Earth.

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