There are, it’s been advertised, 45 previously-unissued studio tracks on next month’s Super Deluxe Edition of Sign “O” the Times; and Warner Bros. appears to be hell-bent on issuing as many of them as possible to digital platforms before the box set’s release. By last Thursday’s surprise drop of an “early vocal run-through” of the album track “Forever in My Life,” I was starting to feel like I’d been opening all my Christmas presents early. But hey, it’s not like I have the self-control to not listen to a newly-unveiled Prince outtake as soon as it comes out, so let’s tear off that wrapping paper and get to it.
Like the earlier pre-release single “Witness 4 the Prosecution,” “Forever” was inspired by Susannah Melvoin, Prince’s live-in partner at the time and the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy. But where that song zeroed in on the less harmonious aspects of their relationship, this one–recorded about five months later, in the wee hours of August 8, 1986–found Prince in a contented mood, happily contemplating the prospect of a lifelong commitment. “The song was recorded when he was engaged to Susannah and he was reali[z]ing it would be forever,” engineer Susan Rogers recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He was comfortable with that thought” (Nilsen 1999 214).
In a statement accompanying the early version’s release, Susannah recounted her first time hearing “Forever,” in the same Galpin Blvd. home studio where Prince had finished the track minutes earlier. “He had been up all night and he came upstairs. It was like 7:00 in the morning and he grabbed my hand and said ‘follow me’, and so I followed him downstairs,” she recalled. “The sun was coming through the stained glass windows and he pressed play, and that song came on and I looked at him and I got teary-eyed. And that was it. He didn’t have to say anything.”
It’s unclear from Susannah’s statement whether the version of “Forever” that moved her to tears was the one that ended up on Sign “O” the Times or the one that will appear on the Super Deluxe Edition; somehow, though, I suspect it was the former. The “early run-through,” while technically impressive with its stacks of vocal harmonies, still seems to be feeling its way toward the song’s emotional center. Prince attacks the opening “La Da Da”’s with just a little too much gusto; the arrangement feels busy, with a vestigial piano part that is summarily discarded less than five bars in; the melody meanders, never fully settling into its easy cadence borrowed from Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”
There has always been an element of performativeness to “Forever”; lest we forget, less than five months after he recorded this pledge of everlasting devotion, Prince’s relationship with Susannah would be severed entirely. But this early take demonstrates that, in crafting a convincing emotional appeal, less tends to be more. The album version would pare the song back to its barest essentials: as music writer Michaelangelo Matos put it, just “a drum machine, multitracked background vocals that anticipate the lead, some acoustic guitar at the end, and nothing else” (Matos 2004 21). This spartan construction creates a sense of intimacy that the early run-through only hints at.
Still, the alternate take isn’t fully without advantages: At about three minutes in–the point where, in the album version, Prince’s acoustic guitar makes its belated entrance–“Forever” shifts gears into a funky vamp. Prince, no longer trying to convince the listener (or himself) of his newfound faith in monogamy, gives himself over to his original soulmate–the act of music-making itself. He rides the groove for another three minutes: leading a call-and-response with an imagined crowd, even calling out to specific parts of the audience with the instructions, “Over there!” and “Right here!” It is, of course, an embryonic version of the extended arrangement he’d give “Forever” on the Sign tour and concert movie, where he would turn over the spotlight to powerhouse backing vocalist Boni Boyer and layer in lyrics from “It” as a libidinous counterpoint to the song’s increasingly spiritual overtones.
But that’s a story for another day. For now, I’m once again relishing Prince’s continued ability to surprise–even in cases, like this one, where the “surprise” is less an unearthed gem in its own right than a glimpse at the creative process that led to the masterpieces we already knew. Now if Warner can just leave a few of those surprises for us to discover on September 25, I’ll be a happy man indeed.