40: Strange Relationship

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
When the author Vladimir Nabakov was asked about his novels’ beastly characters, he replied that they were outside his inner-life like the monsters on a cathedral facade, placed there merely to show the demons that have been booted out. Prince uses Camille in a similar way. His gender-fluid alter-ego is not just a pitchshifted voice, it is a vehicle for Prince to exorcise his dark thoughts, or at least launder them into art he can share with the world without the cognitive dissonance of endorsing the message with his birth name. Strange Relationship is one those song dredged up from the darker recesses of his pysche that has its lead vocals attributed to Camille, but it was written years before that character was born. First recorded in 1983, the song’s lyrics portray a relationship that’s more sadistic and unhealthy than strange. Jill Jones has said Prince wrote it about Vanity after he became jealous of her seeing other people – feelings he also channelled into the deceptively viscous Wonderful Ass (although Wendy believes Susannah was the muse for that one). To me, Strange Relationship sounds like the darker cousin to When You Were Mine, where this time the green-eyed monster isn’t fanning the flames of love but instead causing them to emit a toxic smoke that’s captivating to watch dance. The ghost of a sitar synth haunts the background – traces of the time it was in Wendy and Lisa’s care before their involvement was whitewashed out post-Revolution – while a monotonous beat gets a kick out of doing you cold. The effect is beautiful yet sinister, like a young Imelda Marcos. Unlike Wonderful Ass, this song refused to be banished to the vault. It made it onto three abandoned albums (Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball) and the same amount of released ones (Sign o’ the Times, One Night Alone… Live!, Piano and a Microphone 1983). It also appeared on a couple of concert home videos and performed live regularly up to and including his final tour. Out of all the intricate gargoyles adorning Prince’s palace, Strange Relationship is the one whose troubled gaze you couldn’t escape.