Sign O The Times is the tale of three different Prince album projects. Because Prince was cutting edge in terms of the presentation of music as well as the sound of it,he recorded enough music during 1986 for three albums. Two of which were multi album sets. Those were The Dream Factory,Crystal Ball and an album credited to a pseudonym Camille. Due to Warner Bros. displeasure with so much Prince music coming out during a years time,all of this content was whittled down into a double album set. And it was all finally released thirty years ago today as Sign O The Times.
My own personal history with the album came with seeing a very choppy take of the music video for “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”,one of the albums rockier hits,on a VHS tape of music videos my father recorded for me at work from MTV. That was early in 1988. I first heard the hits for the album years later on the collection The Hits/The B-Sides. It was shortly after the albums tenth anniversary that I first picked it up on CD. I’d only read about it through Allmusic Guide before. And unlike with many written reviews,after hearing Sign O The Times so often I still totally agree with the guide’s positive assessment of the album.
Sign On The Times is generally considered to be either his best or most significant album of the 80’s. The obvious reason for this album being considered is best is probably because,even with Prince’s trademark eclecticism,all of the musical ideas and combinations on this album work perfectly for what they are. Its detractors sometimes point out how disjointed the album is. To the point of being highly uneven. In a way, that’s also why this album is so important. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me, its perhaps Prince’s best early use of his vault material. None of this music was meant to heard together,but it sounded as if it were.
Any album that managed to put such disparate music, all intended for different projects,into a context that had some semblance of conceptual unity is the sign of a highly creative mindset. In many ways,the internal maturity Prince seems to showcase throughout this album comes out in his approach to its presentation. Its not him so much trying to fuse different genres into a whole anymore. But rather showcasing his ability at playing funk,soul,dance and rock ‘n roll with equal vitality and identity. Writing my review on Amazon.com of this album was a bit daunting. But it did manage to convey more specifically what the album was musically.
I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said about what is very justly regarded as a classic album. Well maybe the best thing to do is discuss a little about why it might be so revered. In the three years or so since his commercial breakthrough with Purple Rain,Prince had been carefully balance creativity with his need to communicate with his audience. It was a restless struggle that’s basically defined his career and,to an extent his personal character up to this point. Somehow here he managed to make it all work.
Basically this is a double album pieced together from from three aborted 1986 album sessions and reworked into what ended up being one of his 80’s classics. As with any Prince album the sound is eclectic yet somehow consistent. On this album though the range of subject matter lyrically is much broader in scope and in a lot of ways more mature. During this time Prince was also interjecting strong live band and solo elements of jazz into his sound. It’s not only in the instrumentation but in the arrangements too and,not only that his production elements-especially his noted,inventive use of the LINN LM-1 drum machine is on full display here.
The title song here is a completely stripped down,pulsing musing on outwardly focused social ills of the day and very surprisingly became a big hit as well. There are also a good deal of genuinely sunny weather sounding pop/rock tunes such as the bouncy “Play In The Sunshine”. At the same time these songs,being that it’s Prince are not mere “fun” tunes and give you the full spectrum of weather as each song concludes with these minor chorded jazz-funk/blues instrumental bridges that express the human race’s duel consciousness very well.
There’s also a couple of dense,moody funky rockers in the explosive “It”,the tough grooving,hip-hop beat inflected “Hot Thing” and the stomping “Strange Relationship”. This album also offers up enormous doses of funk. Both the classic “Housequake” and “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”,with their precise horn charts and chunky rhythm guitars not only showcase the obvious James Brown influence but give a possible wink to out JB might’ve sounded had his career not been stalled after the mid 70’s and had he just continued on innovating.
So Prince is actually kind of picking up here where one of his musical heroes left off. There are also a series of songs here that just pull everything he does best together. One is the slinky,electronically polyrhythmic jazz-funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”-one of my favorite Prince songs and one containing an intentionally misleading come on in the lyric. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” has a similar musical idea married to a lyric that plays on the idea about how opposite sexes may not relate to each other as well as they think.
“Forever In My Life” is a very poignant bluesy funk number that is about Prince maturing when it comes to matters of love. “U Got The Look” is one song here that does sound a little bit like his 1984 era material well,by degrees anyway although Sheila E’s percussion effects and the slicker production make it very distinctly it’s own beast. On an early nod toward what would later become known as praise rock “The Cross” has a very anthemic guitar god styled flavor and is one of Prince most rock oriented songs ever.
On the horn packed soul ballads “Slow Love” and “Adore” Prince is at his most sweet and romantic since the lyrics on his debut album For You. So across the sixteen songs on this album you get a Prince musically and personally in transition,augmenting his musical sound into yet another new territory while still keeping a foot in his original style. Also the lyrics illustrate Prince’s psyche in a similar place and in a way this stands as something of a peak of the stylistic progression he’d been working on since the 80’s decade got started.
Sign O The Times stands as a significant example,be it by accident or partial design, of Prince’s understanding of what his classic soul and funk progenitors had done. Artists such as Ray Charles were expert at playing many different kinds of music-from the soul style he innovated ,jazz and country music. And Prince was able to bring his own artistic personality to multiple styles here as well. It also showcased him in a new musical period too. It was one where he was no longer an on the loose partier. His outlook on nuclear war and other social issues here is not that of resignation anymore. Its one of concern for the future and a better life.
It was author Jason Draper who, in his coffee table book Prince: Life & Times in 2008, described the overall atmosphere of the album best. To paraphrase his words,the album jacket features an out of focus Prince in the foreground. He is walking away from what appears to be the set of a local production of Guys & Dolls. There is a glowing plasma ball in the center of it all. Draper speculated,and perhaps correctly so,that it was not only representative of Prince focusing more on music and less on the rock lifestyle. But also on Warner Bros passing on his planned releases as well.
Prince also delivered an album here that seemed to have provided a better viewpoint for music writers. My father described one such instance where Downbeat magazine (which is generally highly critical of even jazz releases) gave Sign O The Times a 5 star review-essentially describing it as Prince’s magnum opus. This was either in the late 80’s or early 90’s. Now I can only relate my fathers story about this since I cannot find any confirmation in online archives for it. But it does speaks volumes about how the musical and personal maturation dealt with on the album has had positive results on even professional music journalism.
On its 30th anniversary,this album is also a shinning example to artists and producers who,today, inspired by Prince’s instrumental condensation of funky dance grooves. The Minneapolis sound has become the mainstream production approach now. But what is important for modern producers inspired by Prince is to take a listen to how even on these songs,most done by Prince himself,are possessed of strong chord changes and thick grooves. In fact, Sign O The Times should be experienced fully by any DIY producer/musician today before their next production because it remains that strong an album for that ethic.
My Favorite Songs From The Album For You To Hear: