Whenever I explain why I’m writing about every Prince song in order–a hobby, believe it or not, that does still warrant explanation in some circles–one of my go-to lines is that Prince, almost uniquely in popular music, is an artist with effectively three or four different canons. There is of course the primary canon of the big ’80s hits (“1999,” “Kiss,” “Little Red Corvette,” basically all of Purple Rain), f0llowed by the subcanon of later singles, “deep cut” album tracks, and B-sides–the latter of which is large enough that we could potentially make it a subcanon all its own. But what makes Prince special is the fact that he also has a sub-subcanon–either his third or fourth, depending on how we count the above–which includes tracks that never saw official release, but are still treated with reverence by collectors and fans. Prince isn’t the only artist with a deep and multilayered catalogue, of course–Bob Dylan and Neil Young both come to mind as potential peers–but I would argue that he is the only artist whose “sub-subcanon” rivals the quality and notoriety of his “official” body of work. In short, for fans of rabbit holes (and I clearly am one), they don’t come any deeper than this.
For years, “Cosmic Day” was one of those fabled cuts languishing in the depths of the purple rabbit hole: one of many proverbial “holy grails.” Recorded on November 15, 1986, in the midst of the blur of activity that led to the Crystal Ball triple-LP and its truncated sibling, Sign “O” the Times, it was seemingly never intended for either project; like “Moonbeam Levels,” another fixture of Prince’s subterranean canon, it’s at once essential to the era in which it was recorded and wholly detached from it. But unlike “Moonbeam Levels,” it has also tantalized fans by staying out of the hands of most collectors, with only two-to-three-minute fragments in wide circulation–until, that is, yesterday’s release of the full recording in advance of Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe.
Hearing “Cosmic Day” in all its glory, it’s easy to see why it was coveted for so long by collectors. Even in a period as stylistically rich and eclectic as Prince’s 1986, the track still stands out as unique–enough so that one can find decade-old prince.org threads speculating that the leaked recording was a fake. The ping-ponging metronome beat and explosive live drums are miles away from Prince’s trademark treated LM-1; the pitched-up vocals evoke Camille, the androgynous alter-ego for whom Prince had just compiled a spin-off album, but breathier and higher-pitched, the result of the varispeed tape effect being applied to the singer’s falsetto. Even the guitars, simply put, shred harder than anything else Prince was cooking up at the time. It’s quite an achievement to be the odd one out on an album as sprawling as Sign “O” the Times, much less Crystal Ball; but that’s exactly what “Cosmic Day” is. If it sounds like anything, it’s the missing link between the psychedelic whimsy of the abandoned Dream Factory project and the sugar-rush riffage of “Glam Slam” from 1988’s Lovesexy.
This sense of “Cosmic Day” as an “odd one out” lends itself to speculation over exactly what (or whom) Prince intended the song for. When the original two-minute fragment leaked to the bootleg-trading community, the story was that it had been sourced from a sample tape of songs Prince was shopping around to other artists; but how many other artists could reasonably tackle a bubblegum-psych pop-metal epic like this? UMB, the curator of a popular series of Prince “mega-threads” on Twitter, has suggested that the track was an homage to neo-psychedelic “Paisley Underground” groups like the Bangles, the Dream Syndicate and the Three O’Clock–the former of whom, of course, made “Manic Monday” a hit in 1986, and the latter of whom would sign to Paisley Park and record another Prince song, “Neon Telephone,” in 1988. It’s certainly a plausible theory that Prince considered offering “Cosmic Day” to the Three O’Clock as well; but I personally hear a lot more Paisley Underground in earlier tracks like “Teacher, Teacher,” the 1986 version of which also happens to be slated for Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe.
In any case, Prince clearly had something planned for “Cosmic Day”: while it didn’t make the cut on any of his various album projects in 1986-87, he was invested enough to ask Clare Fischer to add a string arrangement, which the orchestrator overdubbed on December 5. Prince would later repurpose these strings for the intermission music played over the P.A. on the Lovesexy tour. Disappointingly, the version of “Cosmic Day” that’s been released is not the version with Fischer’s orchestration, which would have added some interesting texture to the song’s coda; but I guess on some level it’s appropriate that even after all these years, the “real” “Cosmic Day” remains outside our grasp.
Edit: I was in such a rush to get this up that I forgot to thank Emerson Evelyn for becoming D / M / S / R’s latest patron! Thank you again, and see you all next week!