Classic Albums Revisited: Prince, ‘Sign o' The Times'

Prince recently announced that he will release 2 new albums, ‘Lotusflow3r’ and ‘MPLSound’ later this month exclusively at Target department stores.  These days Prince makes more news for his marketing innovations – and sending angry missives via his attorneys to fan sites – than his music.  But while he might not be shaking the foundations of pop music with every new album like he did in the 80s, new Prince music is still cause for excitement.  He’s waxed and waned and waxed again over the years in terms of commercial and artistic success; he’s capable of producing both dreadful misfires (‘New Power Soul’, anyone?) as well as stone-cold classics.  Only time will tell where the new albums will rank amongst the pantheon of Princedom, but in the meantime he has a peerless back catalog brimming with amazing tunes that can tide fans over until the new albums arrive.

Prince was arguably at his creative peak in 1986 as he wrote and assembled the wildly diverse collection of songs that would end up on his acclaimed 1987 double-album ‘Sign o’ the Times.’   It was a cobbled together patchwork of songs that had originally been recorded for various unreleased projects - the aborted ‘Dream Factory’ LP, an album to be credited to the alter-ego “Camille” featuring Prince’s vocals manipulated and sped-up, and the proposed 3-LP set ‘Crystal Ball’ which was whittled down to 2 discs at the record company’s insistence.   Many of the tracks recorded during this period remain unreleased but have been widely bootlegged, so in some respects the mystique of ‘Sign o’ the Times’ has always suffered a bit for imaging what it might have been.  But while diehard fans will continue to pine for the release of outtakes from the era, it hardly seems fair to judge an album by what it doesn’t include – and without question ‘Sign o’ The Times’ is still a phenomenal record.  The diversity, perhaps owing to the unfocused nature of its genesis, is its greatest strength. 
The title track opens the album on a stark and somber note. With lyrics about AIDS, drugs, violence and poverty over a stripped-down dark funk backdrop, “Sign o’ The Times” was a bold choice for debut single.  Mostly known in the past for sweat-drenched and lascivious funk-rock like “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss” and “Little Red Corvette,” this was something unlike anything Prince had ever released.   Despite its heavy subject matter, and its lack of a video in an age when MTV was all-powerful, it became an instant smash.

From that starting point, the album whirls and twists in almost every direction imaginable. “Housequake,” with its shout-and-response vocals, rapid-fire horn blasts and kinetic rhythm is a certifiable Prince classic. “Hot Thing” is blistering funk.  The off-kilter “Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is a comically obtuse take on a one-night stand.  The semi-psychedelic “Starfish and Coffee” is an oddly touching song about a young girl with developmental disabilities.  It showed a sentimentality in Prince’s songwriting largely missing from past records.  Then there’s the sweet soul of “Slow Love,” an unabashedly lush old-school ballad with romantic strings, horns and a sweeping vocal performance.  Disc one closes with the bluesy “Forever In My Life,” a song of naked devotion that doesn’t fall into the usual mode of the slow, weepy ballad.  It’s basically Prince just singing over a slightly discordant drum machine pattern with a few strands of guitar at the end, but the vocal performance is so emotive and powerful that more instrumentation would have smothered it.
Disc two is, if anything, even stronger.  “U Got the Look,” a wickedly clever pop song with a killer hook provided by Sheena Easton, was the album’s biggest hit single.  Another smash was the rocker “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” with an extended instrumental ending giving Prince free reign on his blistering guitar.  “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is arguably one of Prince’s greatest accomplishments.  Twisted and funky, it’s a sly take on the dynamics within a relationship, with distorted vocals and an insistent, creeping rhythm and a serpentine keyboard riff that crawls into your brain and takes hold.  “The Cross” morphs from a solemn devotional ballad into a thundering blues-rock finale.  “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” mixing a live backing track with studio overdubs, is 9 minutes of hip shaking funk that is irrepressibly joyous.   The album closes with perhaps Prince’s most famous ballad, the achingly beautiful “Adore.”  Prince’s soaring falsetto never sounded better.  When “until the end of time, I’ll be there for you…” eases out of the speakers, lights suddenly dim and candles light all of their own accord.
Prince has released tons of great music since ‘Sign o’ the Times,’ including some solid work this decade, but he never again over the course of an entire record reached the dizzying heights achieved on this masterwork.  It showed his seemingly effortless versatility in full display, and has become the benchmark by which every new Prince album is judged.  Experimental while still being accessible, ‘Sign o’ The Times’ is the type of extraordinary album that shows the limitless possibilities of pop music.

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