Prince #4: Prince
There are two types of songs on Prince, Prince’s 1979 named-like-a-first-album second album: there are the songs you forgot you knew (“I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “I Feel For You,” the latter of which was reshaped into a giant Chaka Khan hit five years later); then there are the songs that make you go, “Wait, this is Prince?”
Not to take anything away from 1978’s For You, Prince’s actual debut. That album is full of life and personality, and fits nicely into the man’s overall catalog. But Prince has something else — a musical adventurousness, restlessness even — that lets the listener know they’re just hearing the near edge of what this guy can do. The songs I’m thinking of are “Bambi,” “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” and “It’s Gonna Be Lonely.”
“Bambi” is a notorious for being a come-on to a lesbian, but it presents as more clueless than hateful. Musically, it’s closest to a Grand Funk Railroad rocker, with a riff that’s SO ’70s it makes me smile every time I hear it.
“When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” and “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” are mirrors of each other. They each close a side of the album, and they feel it. This is not just Prince stretching out musically (more on that in a minute), this is Prince learning how to sequence an album. Both songs are the longest on the album at 5+ minutes each, and both start out sounding like ’70s songs before blooming into something else. “Dancing Close and Slow” is a gorgeous, piano-and-acoustic-guitar ballad that sounds for all the world like something off of Beck’s Sea Change, particularly when the beat goes from half-time to a more driving 4/4 under Prince’s icy piano runs. That is to say, it’s a mature, rock-based ballad from a guy who was just barely 21.
Prince played every instrument on every track on his first albums, and that’s really something to ponder when you’re listening to “It’s Gonna Be Lonely.” It’s not a straight-ahead drum part — there’s a coda with lots of stops and starts — yet he either had to have recorded the drums while keeping track of the melody in his mind, or he tracked straight drums and recorded everything over that before erasing his initial guide tracks. Either way, “Prince plays everything!” is a lot easier to get your head around when listening to a straight 4/4 disco cut like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” or the drum-and-synth-based albums of the early ’80s. When you stop and think how he did a track like “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” it’s enough to make your head hurt.
“It’s Gonna Be Lonely” is a perfect album closer, somewhere between a ballad and an anthem, breaking into a pop-prog coda that reminds me of Journey’s early Steve Perry records. It’s a million miles — radio programming-wise, anyway — from the opening track, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” given that song’s chiming Nile Rodgers-style chords and disco beat. And yet, while none of it sounds like the Prince that would be, it all sounds like the same artist. Even this early, he’s something special.
- On “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” Prince sings right up against the mic in a whispered falsetto, and damn if he doesn’t sound exactly like Diana-era Diana Ross.
- My wife would be sad if I didn’t mention her favorite detail: apparently, when Prince did his own background harmonies, he gave each “singer” his or her own personality, including level of skill. So while Prince is always Prince on lead vocals, his “background singers” tend to sound like real people, some of whom could have used another take. This is on display in “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” where the singers aren’t all on the same beat. Meanwhile, his love of a big (all-Prince) chorus is on full display on “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” where it sounds like ten people are crowded around a single mic.
- It’s weird to listen to these early albums and realize they’re all sung in falsetto, every track. In fact, he never used his natural tenor on a whole song until the album 1999. The closest we come to hearing it before that is on For You, where he sings in a baritone for a second leading to the chorus on “Soft and Wet”; and then on Controversy, where it’s in the Lord’s Prayer in the title track, and then again on “Annie Christian,” where all the vocals are spoken/chanted. One of the most distinctive lead voices in popular music, and we never really heard it until five albums in.