The sad death of Sinéad O'Connor earlier this year has inspired many people to revisit her back catalogue and inevitably her biggest hit 'Nothing Compares 2 U'. The song was released in early 1990 as the second single from her 'I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got' album, and became a worldwide hit, topping the charts in many countries and going Platinum in both the UK and the United States. Many people know that the song was originally written by Prince but are unaware of its original incarnation on the 1985 eponymous album by The Family, one of Prince's many side projects. After the song became a worldwide hit Prince released his own version in 1993 which was a live recording from his Paisley Park studios featuring soul/gospel singer Rosie Gaines. Finally in 2018, two years after his death Warner Brothers released Prince's original 1984 version of the song.
All of these versions are slightly different, and I thought it might be interesting to look at each of them from a musical perspective, with particular with reference to the harmony, to see how the song developed over time. I will look at them in chronological order starting with the 1984 Prince version, followed by the 1985 arrangement by 'The Family' (which was the first actually released). I'll then consider Sinéad O'Connor's chart topping rendition and end with Prince's 1993 live version.
'Nothing Compares 2 U' Prince 1984
Prince recorded the original song on July 15th 1984 at the Flying Cloud Drive 'Warehouse' in Eden Prairie, Minnesota with his longtime studio engineer Susan Rogers. As was usually the case Prince played all of the instruments on the track, although Susannah Melvoin and St Paul Peterson added some backing vocals and Eric Leeds performed the saxophone solo. In 1984 Prince was at the height of his creative powers. In May he had released 'When Doves Cry' the first single from his hugely successful 'Purple Rain' album which became his biggest selling album to date and perhaps more importantly marked his move into the pop/rock mainstream. He was also working on his next album which would become 'Around the World In A Day' Here is the original track
...and here's a rough chord chart I did of this version:
The tune starts with a simple chordal figure played on a keyboard, which continues through most of the song changing with the harmony. The harmony of the A section uses the classic 'Pachelbel's Canon' progression of I V VI iii, however in bar 8 Prince introduces a melodic figure over a 'gospel style' progression which essentially moves from the III chord through the IV chord up to the V sus chord, using triad over bass note voicings, eventually resolving back to the I chord. This section is dynamically much louder than the rest of the verse and Prince emphasises it with heavy guitar and backing vocals doubling the line.
The verse repeats, but at bar 13 (the 2nd time bar in the chart) Prince uses a IVmaj7 chord rather than the iii chord which then moves to a bVII7 chord in bar 14 (A7 in this key) preparing for the chorus section. Where does this bVII7 chord come from? There are different ways of interpreting this chord, but perhaps the simplest is to see it as a type of IVm6 chord. The IVm6 chord is often used as a substitute for a dominant chord, (in classical terminology it would be referred to as a minor plagal cadence (IVm - I). In this case however the bass is playing an A natural under the Emi6 chord which effectively turns it into an A dominant 7th chord. Again, this progression is very common in gospel harmony where plagal type cadences are often favoured over perfect (probably because plagal cadences are common in traditional church music?)
Here however the A7 chord doesn't resolve up to the B chord as might be expected, but moves back to the E chord (the IV chord) Because A7 is the dominant of E major our ears perhaps interpret the move from V7 to I at this point as a perfect cadence, producing a slight ambiguity as to whether we have moved into E major or not. Harmonic ambiguity tends to create a sense of tension as our ears try to figure out where we are harmonically, and this makes the final resolution to B major all the more powerful. It's interesting that the Sinéad O'Connor version doesn't resolve to the I chord at this point but continues the tension, of which more later...
It's also interesting that in the last verse (after the sax solo) Prince slightly changes the progression and in place of the 'gospel style' III IV Vsus harmony he uses IVmaj7 to IVm6 but with the original melody over the top. This creates a very powerful emotional effect, and is typical of the harmonic detail often found in Prince's compositions.
'Nothing Compares 2 U' The Family 1985
Throughout his career Prince had a number of side-projects which he often wrote music for, and which served as an outlet for material which wouldn't necessarily fit within the Prince 'brand'. 'The Family' was formed in 1985 out of the ruins of The Time which had been Prince's most successful side-project up to that point. The Time's lead singer Morris Day left the band in 1985 and this inspired other members of the band to also quit. The remaining members (Jellybean Johnson, Jerome Benton and Paul Peterson) were invited by Prince to form a new band also including Susannah Melvoin on backing vocals and Eric Leeds on saxophone. The band released their one and only album on August 19th 1985 on Prince's Paisley Park record label. As was the case with most of his side-projects Prince played all the music on the album, overdubbing Paul Peterson's and Susannah Melvoin's vocals and Eric Leed's sax. The album was a mixture of uptempo funk songs, jazz-funk instrumental tracks and ballads.
The arrangement for 'Nothing Compares 2 U' is quite different from the original Prince recording from a year earlier. It is slightly slower, and the instrumentation consists mainly of a kind of improvised keyboard string arrangement along with backing vocals and a saxophone. The harmony adheres mainly to the Prince original although tends to use the IVm6 chord rather than the bVI7 chord before the chorus section. Paul Peterson's vocal part closely follows the vocal part of the Prince original making me wonder whether this was used as a guide track for Peterson?
'Nothing Compares 2 U' Sinéad O'Conner 1990
Sinéads version of the tune is much more in keeping with the mood of The Family's version - which makes sense as this is probably the only version she would have heard. The recording was produced by Nellee Hooper with heavy input from Gota Yashiki a Japanese musician who had worked with Hooper previously. It was Yashiki who actually programmed and played most of the synth and drum parts on the record.
The song has been transposed to F major, and the track starts with a synth pad playing a sustained F chord before the vocals enter. Much has been written about O'Connor's vocal performance here, and it is astonishing. A couple of things worth mentioning are the huge dynamic range she achieves from a soft whisper to an impassioned cry. Apparently she refused to allow any compression to be used on her voice which intensifies these contrasts and probably made mixing the vocal part extremely challenging! She also changes the opening line from 'It's been 7 hours and 13 days', to '15 days.' Did she just mishear the original or was it a deliberate change?
Here is my rough lead sheet of the arrangement...
The first thing to note is that this arrangement simplifies Prince's original harmony. The 'gospel' style turnaround has been cut and replaced with a simple I - V7sus progression. Most notably the pivotal chord in bar 11 which sets up the bridge has now become a III7 chord. This secondary dominant is used a lot in pop music. It sometimes sets up a modulation to the relative minor, but it also often moves up to the IV chord as in this case. An example of this is Radiohead's song 'Creep' which uses the progression I III7 IV IVm (although this may have been 'borrowed' from the Hollie's 'The Air That I Breathe as it uses the same progression with a slightly different harmonic rhythm. Ironically Radiohead ended up suing Lana Del Ray for using the same progression in her song Get Free!)
The other significant change is that O'Connor doesn't resolve back to the I chord in bar 14 but stays on the V chord for two whole bars, delaying the resolution and maintaining the tension. She also changes the melody at this point in line with the harmony, singing a G note over the C chord instead of resolving back to the tonic as in the Prince version. She also adds a little grace note from the Ab down to the G on the words 'to you' which almost creates the effect of a 'catch' in her voice, which again adds to the emotional weight of the line.
'Nothing Compares 2 U' Prince and Rosie Gaines 1993
In 1993 Prince was at war with his record label Warner Brothers. In short Warner Brothers wanted to limit the number of albums Prince released to maximise future sales and avoid his albums competing against one another, Prince wanted to release two albums a year at least! Prince was also unhappy about the terms of the contract he signed with Warner Brothers, particularly the extent to which they retained ownership of his music. In 1992 he had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in protest, and often appeared with the word 'slave' written on his face. In 1993 Warner Brothers in an attempt to recoup some of the huge advances they had paid to Price for his previous 'Love Symbol' album (which had seen only modest success) released a compilation album of Prince's hit singles against his wishes. Included on the album was a live version of Nothing Compares 2 U recorded at Prince's Paisley Park studio complex.
The 1993 version emphasises the gospel roots of the tune, and Prince employs Rosie Gaines who is essentially a gospel/soul singer to share the vocals with him. This new version has a whole new chord sequence, which again brings out the gospel nature of the song.
Here is a chord chart...
The tune is now in C, and it's interesting to note that this is the first version I've discussed which is actually being performed by a band rather than one person overdubbing all the parts. The intro consists of the verse chord pattern repeated, and Prince has reinstated the 'gospel turnaround' which is such a feature of all his versions of the song.
Prince and Rosie split the first and second verses. In the second verse Prince improvises some vocal interjections around Rosie's gospel-heavy vocal, even including some spoken phrases: "What did he tell you?" "I'm listening" etc, reminiscent of a congregation calling out phrases in response to a preacher's sermon, which is again common in gospel performances. They also split the third half-verse and Princes includes stops to emphasise certain lines. These stops were probably improvised by Prince who would often use hand signals to direct the band adding 'hits' 'stops' and even whole rehearsed sections to the arrangements
The biggest change in this version is the 'chorus' section. My theory is that Prince actually incorporated versions of the Sinéad O'Connor version into this new arrangement (although he would probably have denied this!). One of the main features of the O'Connor interpretation is the move from chord IV to iii in the chorus section. Here Prince does the same thing (bars 18-19) except he doesn't move to the V chord as O'Connor does, but instead goes to the ii chord before going back to the IV chord and then introducing a new G/F chord before resolving to the I. Again, this has the effect of maintaining tension in a similar way to the O'Connor version, although Prince adds more chords. The G/F chord is basically a G7 third inversion and this voicing is used a lot in gospel and pop music and really brings a new flavour to the arrangement.
It's interesting to me how the same basic song can be interpreted in a number of ways and can create very different emotional responses based on some fairly subtle harmonic changes.
Prince died suddenly on 21st April 2016. Exactly seven hours and thirteen days later radio stations across America played the 1993 version of Nothing Compares 2 U in a tribute organised by Minnesotan radio station 'The Current'. Speaking about the tribute The Current's Jim McGuinn said "We hope that wherever Prince fans are, and whatever radio station they are listening to, they will take a moment to listen and remember his musical genius and artistry"