Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times
Released March 31st, 1987 on Paisley Park and Warner Bros. Records
Sign ‘O’ The Times was Prince’s first album after the breakup of The Revolution, and came in the middle of a sort of creative free-for-all. At the time of the Revolution’s demise, Prince had been working on a Revolution album (Dream Factory) as well as a solo album, Camille, which featured sped-up vocals and an androgynous new persona (named after the album’s title). After a flurry of activity, recording, and the breakup of the Revolution, Prince had the idea to release all of the above in a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball. Warner Bros. said no, because they have no sense of humour.
Instead, Prince culled down his recordings and released a double-LP set, solo, called Sign ‘O’ The Times. The album drew in large amounts from both cancelled records. “Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, “U Got The Look”, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” come from Camille and all bear the squeaky, sped-up vocals that Prince was experimenting with on those recordings. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish And Coffee” were part of the Dream Factory recordings right from the original demos. In lesser hands, such a hodgepodge of components would have ended up as a gigantic mess, a hymn to overreaching ambition. Prince, though, comes across on Sign ‘O’ The Times like he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going at all times. Without hyperbole, the album is an encapsulation of everything that went right with pop music in the 1980s. The drum machine (a Linn LM-1 for the gear nerds among us) is precisely funky, and never comes off as mechanical or stiff. Prince’s expert sense of in-the-pocket grooves when it comes to bass is on point everywhere, especially on the rather apocalyptic twilight rhythm of the socially conscious title track and the sensual “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. There’s a decent balance between funk, soul, R&B, and that Eighties brassy pop. Underneath all of that, however, is evidence (provided on “The Cross” and to an extent on “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”) that Prince played rock ‘n’ roll guitar like a motherfucker.
Sign ‘O’ The Times would be the last great Prince album – unless you count The Black Album, which was supposed to be Prince’s followup to Sign ‘O’ The Times until he had a bad trip and became convinced the album was evil. Instead, he rushed out the half-baked Lovesexy, followed that up with the Batman soundtrack (which was okay as well) and then got into a horrendous, legendary fight with Warner Bros. that saw him change his name into a symbol and churn out a series of rushed albums to get out of his contract with the label (although Love Symbol is honestly pretty decent). Legend (and Kevin Smith) has it that Prince has a vault of music that could last us all until doomsday, but chances are good that, as far as quality goes, none of it is going to top what Prince was doing on Sign ‘O’ The Times.