It’s been 7 hours and 15 days since he went away. Prince died 15 days ago and we are still in mourning for one of popular music’s greats. His music is so soulful and so visceral that it’s easy to overlook the power of his lyrics.
He was shockingly frank about sex but, more than that, he could empathise with both sexes. We are so used to the macho male view in pop music that it was a revelation to hear a man express with such tenderness and understanding what it is like for both men and women to desire and love.
At the beginning of this piece, I misquoted Nothing Compares To U, one of the greatest of all songs about loss. Thanks to Sinead O’Connor’s iconic version, the song is so associated with the feminine experience that we sometimes forget it was written by Prince and, when first released by him on the album The Family, it spoke from the view of a man missing his girlfriend. In fact O’Connor’s version is so ingrained in our consciousness that when the purple one released a new version some years later, he thought it best to share the vocals with a woman Rosie Gaines.
Like all great songwriters, Prince’s lyrics are as much a part of the music as any instrument. Like any great poet, he conveys the meaning through the sound of words as much as the choice of the words themselves. In O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares To U, the line is ‘It’s been 7 hours and fifteen days since you went away.’ I don’t know if she changed it but both times Prince recorded the song, the time was ‘thirteen days’.
What’s the difference? Fifteen days is arguably better than thirteen because it’s a longer period, thus showing that the anguish of loss has moved into a third week and she’s still counting the hours. However ‘thirteen’ works better as a lyric. Firstly the word itself is more arresting. It’s a primary number so it doesn’t crop up as a multiple of smaller numbers. When we learned our times tables, we usually stopped at 10 or 12. It’s also commonly thought of as an unlucky number. Then there’s the sound. The short ‘i’ of ‘fifteen’ breaks up the rhythm of the phrase whereas ‘thir’ continues the long vowels of ‘hours’, ‘teen’ and ‘days’. The effect of this drawn out line is to convey through the sound of the words the sense that he can hardly get the words out, such is the pain of his loss.
So, ‘thirteen’ wins over ‘fifteen’ and Prince again shows why nothing compares to him.