By the beginning of May 1982, Prince had recorded more than enough quality new material to fill a single LP; but he was still only a little more than halfway finished with the album that would become 1999. “I didn’t want to do a double album, but I just kept writing and I’m not one for editing,” he later explained to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “I like a natural flow. I always compare songwriting to a girl walking in the door. You don’t know what she’s going to look like, but all of a sudden she’s there” (Hilburn 1982).
The “girl” that walked in the door of Sunset Sound on May 2 was “Automatic”: the third–and, at nine and a half minutes, longest–of 1999’s extended electro-funk jams. Like its siblings “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic” unfolds over a rigid, knocking Linn LM-1 beat and a deceptively simple synthesizer hook–in this case, a sing-song four-note pattern perfectly honed to penetrate the cerebral cortex. But with its lyrical themes of emotion as technology, the song is ultimately closer in spirit to its more introspective neighbor on the album, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” The key difference is that, while “Something in the Water” is all about (perceived) malfunction, “Automatic” finds both pleasure and unease in the machine working exactly as designed.
From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”
Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.
Beginning with his third album in 1980, Prince had been steadily building up a mythology–occasionally bordering on a philosophy–for himself. Dirty Mindhad “Uptown,” a clarion call for hedonism that eradicated all racial and sexual boundaries. 1981’s Controversy, of course, had its epic title track, a declaration of selfhood through the negation of fixed identities; as well as “Sexuality,” a return to the themes of “Uptown” with a new quasi-religious fervor. For his fifth album in 1982, he offered something even more blunt and to the point: a musical manifesto based around the four words, “Dance, Music, Sex, Romance.”
Though it was never released as a single–and, in fact, was left off the original CD release of 1999 due to space constraints–“D.M.S.R.” holds a privileged position in Prince’s discography. Dance Music Sex Romance was of course the title of the 1999 biography and session chronicle by Per Nilsen, long considered definitive by fans of the artist’s early career. It’s also, obviously, the title of this very blog, because I figured if Per’s not going to use it anymore, somebody’s gonna have to. Its attraction to writers on Prince is self-evident: as Dave Lifton wrote on the song for Diffuser’s 365 Prince Songs in a Year series, “Dance. Music. Sex. Romance. Add God into the mixture and you’ve more or less got the formula for every song Prince released in his life” (Lifton 2017). Way back when I first started d / m / s / r in 2016, I posited that it would make a great title for a career-spanning collection like Johnny Cash’s Love, God, Murder, with a disc devoted to each theme.
Yes, I know, three Prince: Track by Track posts in a row isn’t exactly a testament to my productivity, but I’m still aiming to get “Nasty Girl” out by the end of the week. Meanwhile, here’s me and Track by Track host Darren Husted on a nice little tune from Prince’s underrated 20Ten album:
Things have gotten quiet again around here, both because I’ve been feeling under the weather and because I’ve been buried in other writing assignments. I’m working on the latter and crossing my fingers that the former is on its way out, but in the meantime, here’s an episode of Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast I recorded late last year: