Brow Beat

The Timelessness of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Prince in 2009.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

At  5:07 p.m. Central time Wednesday afternoon, radio stations across the country will join Minnesota Public Radio’s KCMP in broadcasting “Nothing Compares 2 U” to mark the lyrically appropriate “seven hours and 13 days” since  since Prince’s death. “We just wanted to honor the man we called our friend, and the music we all love,” program director Jim McGuinn told CBS News, “and thought that maybe we might be able to get radio stations all over the world to share this moment with fans who are missing this great artist.”

If, like many people, you know the song from Sinéad O’Connor’s chart-topping version, the commemoration may seem 48 hours premature, since O’Connor changed the song’s opening words, perhaps so she could linger over the soft consonants in “fifteen days” rather than deal with those hard r’s and t’s. But though “Nothing Compares 2 U” will always be associated with O’Connor, Prince’s composition was first recorded in 1985 by a short-lived Minneapolis band called the Family, whose first and only album was released in 1985. Never issued on CD or digital in the U.S., the out-of-print LP has been unavailable for nearly 30 years—and genuinely unavailable, not just “I can’t listen to it for free right now” unavailable like most of Prince’s catalogue—but the (apparently) temporary moratorium on takedown notices for Prince-related content gives us a window to appreciate how he first heard the song and how it’s evolved through the years and dozens of subsequent versions.

The Family rose from the ashes of Prince’s Purple Rain foils the Time, after leader Morris Day left for a solo career. Prince, who wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on their LP, assembled the band’s unusual lineup of keyboards, drums, and saxophone and added two vocalists, Paul Petersen (whom Prince redubbed St. Paul) and Susannah Melvoin, twin sister of the Revolution’s Wendy and Prince’s eventual fiancée. According to some sources, Prince and Melvoin’s tumultuous relationship was also the inspiration for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which in its original version is spooky and forlorn, with undulating washes of keyboards and no underlying rhythm track. Although now prized by collectors, The Family sold poorly and the band broke up after playing only a single show, with some members being reabsorbed into the Revolution. They partially reformed, as the group fDeluxe, in 2009.

O’Connor’s version took over in 1990, landing at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and staying there for four weeks. It also topped the charts in the U.K. and more than a dozen other countries, netting her a Grammy win (for Best Alternative Music Performance) and three more nominations as well. She pushed the song’s emotions to the fore, especially in its iconic music video, which largely consists of a single unbroken closeup of her eventually tear-streaked face. Inspired by Carl Theodor Dryer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, the video, directed by John Maybury, strands O’Connor’s pale, close-cropped head in the middle of a black frame—the same image used for her album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Where the Family’s version includes vocal harmonies, O’Connor is singing alone (though her voice is double-tracked).

Although keyboards and drums keep track of the chord changes and the beat, her song has the power of an a cappella performance, an effect the video emphasized and escalated to create what the Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert deemed “one of the great emotional pop performances of the 20th century.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that O’Connor, whose version was powered by the death of her mother rather than the end of a romance, announced last year that she would never sing “Nothing Compares 2 U” again. “I finally ran out of anything I could use in order to bring some emotion to it,” she wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post. It’s a song you have to feel to sing it right, and she’d used up all her fuel.

On 1993’s The Hits, Prince finally released a version under his own name, taken from a 1992 performance at Paisley Park with the New Power Generation. (This is the version radio stations will be playing tonight.) Prince trades verses with Rosie Gaines, converting O’Connor’s isolation into a duet of mutual longing: It’s no longer one person’s grief but everyone’s, a loneliness we can share even where we’re in the same room, or on the same stage. That version doesn’t seem to be online, but here’s a similar performance with Gaines.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” has been covered dozens of times since, by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, with many more live versions added in the weeks since Prince’s passing. Perhaps the most poignant of them all is by jazz singer Jimmy Scott, whose version suggests Prince could have made as profound a mark in the 1940s as he did in the 1980s. Prince belongs to the ages now, but “Nothing Compares 2 U” will never age.

Read more from Slate on Prince.