Prince: "When Doves Cry"

Shortly after Prince died, one of my favorite podcasts, "Switched On Pop", paid tribute to Prince by talking about one of his best-known and most distinctive singles, "When Doves Cry".

Weirdly, while this is a podcast that loves to talk about the parallels between music and lyrics, they barely mention the lyrics in this song. So I'm going to fix that.

Normally, I am a "music first" guy - I tend to notice lyrics later, if at all, and this post is going to be mostly about lyrics.

But not entirely. First, that guitar intro. This is one tumultuous, tempestuous, angry-sounding solo. Boiling with frustration, it's the most startling intro to a radio hit I can think of. It sounds completely unlike anything that could have been playing before it, and sounds completely unlike the rest of the song. The scale is not unusual, but the phrasing is utterly distinctive - bearing no resemblance to conventional blues-derived rock guitar moves, it has a vaguely eastern connotation, in I believe a deliberate bit of exoticism on Prince's part.

But only for a few seconds. The guitar dies abruptly, leaving us wondering what the hell just happened and where we are now, overlapping with the entrance of an instantly recognizable Prince drum machine beat.

Can we say a little about Prince's drum machine programming? He apparently found a couple distinctive ways to tweak the built-in sounds on a Linndrum, and stuck with them through at least two albums - 1999 and Purple Rain and at least some of Parade (I seem to recall some on "Raspberry Beret"). The result didn't sound like anybody else's drum machine at the time. And it doesn't sound like a normal drum kit either. Something about the pitched-down handclaps, the gobs of swirling flanger effect, and especially that weird knocking sound (drummers know the one) is ... darker, more spacious, more trippy than more conventional drum sounds.... And another deliberate bit of exoticism. He loves to put those odd sounds in between the beats, using them to do something funky and syncopated around the core of more traditional simple kick-snare kick-snare backbeats. When you hear those sounds and offbeat rhythms, you know instantly that you are not in normal pop music land anymore. You are in Prince land.

We get only a bit of spare synthesizer chord stabs over the beat, along with a weird guttural quasi-human sample, all of which also vanishes, leaving only that beat behind the entrance of the lead vocals. So, about those words.

"Dig if you will a picture..."

There is plenty to say about those six words. Or even just four.

"Dig if you will..."

Even just the first word. "Dig" tells us several things. One, he's fond of dated slang. I'm no linguist, but "dig" as a verb meaning "understand" or "appreciate" goes back at least as far as jazz cats of the .... 40s? Certainly by 1983, the time of this recording, it was antiquated, maybe something old hippies said. In this context though, I think it heightens the exoticism a bit more.

"If you will" is a rather formal, flowery way to say "please", isn't it? Imagine if he had just said "Please imagine".

So we know a few things already. We know Prince (or his persona for this song - we never could tell the difference between Prince and any number of song characters and stage personas, could we?) likes to play with language, and likes to mash up outdated slang with florid polite embellishments. Who the hell talks like that?

Here I stake my claim that Prince was a lyrical genius. He created all this in four syllables over some very sparse music.

Speaking of which: The sonic stage on which this scene unfolds is not at all ordinary. This is a rare pop song that has no bassline at all. No ride cymbal either. No rhythm guitar. There are keyboards sporadically, but much of the time there are no harmonic instruments outlining any chords. Those are instrumental elements that usually provide a pop song with its sonic bed, the floor on which to build everything else. Certainly it's vanishingly rare to stage the first verse over nothing but a spare beat with no harmonic instruments at all. So we are in an unfamiliar, unsteady-feeling place. What a perfect way to suck your listener into the dream you are conjuring.

"Dig, if you will, a picture;" "Of you and I engaged in a kiss..."

"Engaged" is, again, more flowery than ordinary or necessary, but Prince is casting a spell, with wordplay and music. Tell us more about that kiss, Prince:

"The sweat of your body covers me."

That ranks among the most erotic things anyone has ever said on the radio. Not the most explicit by far, but it is nonetheless dirty as hell. "Sweat" very compactly evokes three senses (touch and at least a hint of taste and smell as well); there is no mistaking that Prince is planting sex in our minds here.

"Can you my darling, can you picture this?" ... okay, that's filler. But then, a bit startling because it overlaps with "this":

"Dream if you can a courtyard An ocean of violets in bloom..."

We have pulled back from the lovers and consider the wider scene, adding an intense visual aspect for the first time. Dreamlike, no?

"Animals strike curious poses They feel the heat, the heat between me and you"

This must be a dream. Who has ever had literally sweaty sex in a courtyard of violets surrounded by curious wild animals? Well, maybe Prince has. He certainly wants us to think he has. Cultivated mystique and exoticism all over again. This is a seduction: like a lot of pop songs, it's a mixture of first and second person. He addresses "you" because he wants you to feel you're in Prince's purple sex courtyard with him and all those curious critters. He wants you to put yourself there, to want to be there.

Again the last words of that section overlap with the next (what is up with these startling overlaps?). The chorus starts with:

"How can you just leave me standing"

A sudden lyrical shift, coinciding with the re-entrance of synthesizers, sung in a cold monotone voice (voices, rather; starting now it's doubled an octave lower, giving it a creepy undertone). Is this a breakup song all of a sudden? Where did this accusatory tone come from? How did we get here from that hot sex dream a minute ago? What the hell is happening?

"Alone in a world so cold Maybe I'm just too demanding..."

Darker. Self-recriminations now. With this startling shift, we realize maybe Prince has been remembering that kiss this whole time, looking back from the distance of things having gone sour. And... who is he talking to? Are we no longer there with him? Now it retroactively seems Prince has been talking to himself the whole time. We, as "my darling", are in his memory, but he's been alone and bitter this whole time, remembering better times.

"Maybe I'm just like my father, too bold Maybe I'm just like my mother She's never satisfied"

It's become a litany of family discord now. Prince, alone, is faced with the realization that maybe his troubled relationship mirrors long established bad family patterns. He's trapped in a cycle.

"Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like, when doves cry"

Maybe now we understand that snarling, flailing guitar solo. Maybe that was the sound of the fight that just happened. Or maybe that's the sound of Prince, furiously thinking over the fight later, in between drifting back to more sensual memories...

This was absolutely riveting to hear on the radio in 1984. Nothing else like it was going on. No wonder it has stuck with us for over 30 years.