dance / music / sex / romance is fast approaching its third year, so to celebrate, we’re going…backwards? That’s right, to mark the 40th anniversary of Prince’s debut album, I thought now was the perfect time to go ahead with an idea I’ve been toying with for a while: our own sub-series of review podcasts looking at each of Prince’s albums in isolation.
I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, it’s a way to bring those of you who have been listening to the podcasts but not reading the blog into the loop on my chronological Prince project–and also a way for me to work through some of these albums before I can get to it with my glacially paced writing schedule.
Second, I’ve known from the beginning of this project that if I really wanted to do Prince’s catalogue justice, I would need to incorporate more voices and perspectives than just my own. We all have our biases and blind spots, and as a Prince fan I am acutely aware that one person’s sentimental favorite can be another’s unlistenable mess (and vice versa). That’s why I asked my friends Harold and KaNisa, both of whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Prince’s career dwarfs my own, to join me. I think you’ll find that our tastes and opinions both intersect and diverge in a lot of interesting ways, which allowed us–and hopefully, will allow you–to take a different perspective on some of these songs and the context in which they were created.
I hope you enjoy this new approach to an album that remains underappreciated in Prince’s catalogue. If you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on your streaming app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and if you’re so inclined, leave a review! No matter what, thanks for listening, and see you again soon.
Despite a strong start on the East Coast, the Dirty Mind tour lost momentum in the Southern states. Dates in Charleston, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis saw disappointing ticket sales, failing to attract the mainstream R&B audience who had seen Prince open for Rick James earlier in 1980. Only in Detroit–where he, astonishingly, nearly sold out the 12,000-seat Cobo Hall–was Prince building a substantial audience.
Meanwhile, according to drummer Bobby Z, the album sales just “kind of sat” (Nilsen 1999 74). The machinations of P.R. mastermind Howard Bloom, brought on by Prince’s management at the beginning of December, had not yet taken hold. After a final date at Chicago’s Uptown Theatre (no relation), the tour ground to a halt; for the third time in his brief career, Prince’s attempt to get out on the road had been vexed, and he was sent back to Minneapolis to lick his wounds.
Last time–good lord, was that really two weeks ago?!–we touched upon how the spartan conditions and technical limitations of Prince’s Wayzata, Minnesota home studio helped lay the groundwork for what became his signature sound. This time, we actually have a concrete example to discuss: the sole ballad to appear on his 1980 album Dirty Mind, “Gotta Broken Heart Again.”
On paper, “Broken Heart” is familiar territory for Prince; its borrowings from the early 1960s soul music of artists like Sam Cooke recall the similar homages of songs like “So Blue” and “Still Waiting.” But those tracks had felt labored: as if Prince, not fully comfortable singing in a hand-me-down style, had overcompensated by loading up the mix with fussy and (in the case of “Still Waiting”’s pseudo-pedal steel) even self-mocking touches. Here, though, circumstances forced him to sit with the material and approach it on its own terms–and the result was his finest experiment with the style to date.
In late 1979, an interview with Prince appeared in the African American teen magazine Right On! The interviewer, Cynthia Horner, was one of the up-and-coming artist’s earliest champions in the media, yet even she was not spared the usual quirks of his interactions with the press; to her growing exasperation, Prince spent most of the article deflecting her questions with flirtatious evasions. But then, just as Horner seemed about to give up and asked him the hoariest teen-mag question in the book–does he have a girlfriend?–Prince gave a response that feels disarmingly real: “I had one but she left me. I wrote some songs about it on the album.” At her expression of disbelief–“Do you know how many young ladies would love to fill her shoes?”–he replied, “That’s why she left me” (Horner 1979).
It’s perhaps a tribute to Prince’s growing facility as a pop songwriter in 1979 that I never suspected the songs of love and heartbreak on his second album were inspired by real women; they feel much too universal in their vagueness, like the dozens of songs for imaginary girls by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, Prince suggested to Horner–and the various biographies agree–that several of his songs from around this period were inspired by his early girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Upsher, you might recall, was probably Prince’s first “serious” relationship; when he moved into his house on France Avenue in Edina, she was the one who helped decorate and made it feel like a home, rather than a glorified studio space. Due to the deliberate fudging of Prince’s age around this time, she’s often assumed to have been his high-school sweetheart; biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, however, have clarified that they didn’t begin dating until around the time he signed to Warner Bros.–though he did apparently nurse an intense crush for her in high school, while she was seeing his close friend Paul Mitchell (Hahn 2017).
Prince, as we’ve noted before, had a tendency to distance himself from his second album in the years following its release; he seemed to consider its unabashedly commercial nature a compromise of his artistic ideals. And while I don’t necessarily agree with those views–I think Princeholds up very well as an album, hit-thirst be damned–when I look at the first side of the record in particular, I can kind of see his point. It is, as much as For Youhad been, a transparent proof of concept for Prince as an artist, presenting in turn each distinct facet of his musical personality circa 1979: opening with the frothy pop-funk hit, following it up with the bid for rock credibility, then moving straight into the dance-club heater. It’s as if he sequenced the first half of the album specifically for the charts he wanted it to make: Soul, Top 40, Disco. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that track four, and the Side B closer, represented that other crucial component of his signature sound: the seductive R&B ballad.
As predictable as it might seem at face value, though, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is actually a pretty unusual track. Where later Prince ballads like 1981’s “Do Me, Baby”–actually demoed in early 1979 by André Cymone–sound like the archetypal post-Quiet Storm slow jams that they are, this song’s closest sonic precedent is “So Blue”: an oddball album cut from the second side of For You. Like that earlier song, “Close and Slow” owes as much of its ambience to folk-infused 1970s soft rock as to any kind of R&B; in particular, it’s another early signal of Prince’s artistic debt to Joni Mitchell.