Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since Prince three years earlier. In late April and early May of 1982, he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in Los Angeles to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.
While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular OB-SX hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction tropes with an organically soulful melody and jazzy acoustic piano.
This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its score by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.
Of course, Prince had plenty of his own alienated postmodernity to draw from, as well. Like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, “Something in the Water” seemingly cuts to the core of the heartbreak and fear of abandonment that were among his most favored lyrical themes. But unlike that song, which filtered its underlying resentment through a singalong-ready chorus, this one lets it simmer to the surface with lyrics that probe the wound of his character’s bruised ego. “Some people tell me I got great legs,” he sings, “Can’t figure out why U make me beg… U think you’re special[,] well so do I / Why do special women make me cry[?]” The refrain, a simple repetition of the words “does not compute” (and the grammatically-confusing variation, “don’t not compute”), forms a call-and-response with each line as Prince vacillates between shoring up his own self-esteem and lashing out against the mean mistreater who neglects him.
If “Something in the Water”’s music wasn’t so beautiful, the self-pity and solipsism of its lyrics would begin to feel ugly: an adolescent projection of self-loathing into a spitefully generic female tormenter. When Prince sings, “Must be somethin[’] in the water they drink / It’s been the same with every girl I’ve had,” the depth of emotion in his voice paradoxically implies both a creeping sense of self-awareness–the realization that the common denominator in these failed relationships is himself, not tap water–and a complete absence thereof. His conclusion, “Why else would a woman wanna treat a man so bad[?],” suggests he’s leaning toward the latter. Whether this is meant to be dramatic irony or not, the song is at its best when Prince ceases his navel-gazing and lets his spellbindingly fluid piano do the talking.
It’s the gap between Prince’s vocal and instrumental prowess that feels most heavily revised on the re-recorded album version of “Something in the Water.” His original performance had smoldered, but never really caught fire; so on the re-recording, he goes even colder. Gone are the organic elements of piano and bass, leaving only the glacial synths and unrelenting drum machine. The sole source of warmth left in the arrangement is the dry-ice heat of Prince’s vocals, which reach levels of emotional intensity the first recording had scarcely suggested. He turns the first “I” of the line, “I’ll buy U clothing, I’ll buy U fancy cars,” into a blood-curdling shriek; then, he digs in and screams some more. By the end of the song, one might even argue that he’s laid it on too thick: when he chokes off his final scream to hiss, “Bitch, you think you’re special–well, so do I,” he sounds less wounded than petulant. But even in its excess, the passion Prince invests in the song is ultimately effective–right up to the final moments when, mirroring the post-coital conclusion of “Do Me, Baby,” he murmurs, “I do love you… I do… or else I wouldn’t… go through… all the things I do.”
The soul-baring insularity of “Something in the Water” does not, at first glance, seem like something that would translate easily to the stage. This may be why the song didn’t make its first live appearance until April 10, 1983, the final date of the 1999 tour–and even then, as little more than a fragment in the piano set between “Free” and “Still Waiting.” Yet after this inauspicious start, it reemerged again and again, each time taking on a new inflection. At First Avenue on Prince’s 26th birthday in 1984–his first time playing the song with a full band–he gave it a macho funk-rock edge: at one point calling out to the Time’s Jesse Johnson, as if instructing him to take notes. At a soundcheck for the last date of the Purple Rain tour on April 7, 1985, it became a jazz fusion instrumental with Eddie M from opening act Sheila E’s band on sax. Later, after a long absence from Prince’s setlists, it reemerged in the 2000s, after which he continued to reinterpret it right up until his very last tour in 2016. As one of this blog’s patrons, Cliff Dinwiddie, recently remarked, “Try making a playlist and shuffle through all of the genre-hopping versions of this classic.”
In fact, “Something in the Water” can even be said to have outlasted Prince himself. A year after his passing, in 2017, former NPG keyboardist Cassandra O’Neal recorded her own interpretation of the song, scraping away the synthpop chrome and ice of the 1999 version to reveal the jazz-soul standard at its core; never have the similarities between it and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” been so pronounced. O’Neal also complicates the song’s meaning with creative adjustments to the lyrics: changing around most of the male and female pronouns, but keeping the line, “Why else would a woman wanna treat a man so bad,” putting herself in the role of the oppressor. It’s a rare song that can continue to reveal its emotional complexities 35 years after it was written; “Something in the Water” is a rare song indeed.
(This post was edited to add the official link to the original version of “Something in the Water,” and to remove some links to unofficial versions from over the years…sorry!)
“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”
(Cassandra O’Neal, 2017)