By 1987, Prince had created a body of work enviable by any musician. Starting with his third album, 1980′s Dirty Mind, he had slowly worked his way through almost every viable popular music genre of the era. He had even starred in two movies by this point, the latter of which, Under the Cherry Moon, was paired with a soundtrack in the form of his genre-splicing and hopping 1986 album Parade. He also had been working with a band, the Revolution, for the past three albums that resulted in some of the most forward thinking and focused music of his career. But something obviously told Prince to eschew the band and really let go with every thing he had at once, no matter how messy the results may be and the genre flexing of Parade would prove to be a blueprint for what was to come. Thus, in 1987, Prince, minus the Revolution, released the double-album Sign ‘O’ the Times.
Despite it opening with one of the more serious and topical songs on the record, Sign ‘O’ the Times is at its core, like most Prince albums, a party record. But the title track that starts things off is heavy, despite its catchiness. References to the escalating AIDS epidemic, drug addiction, gangs and even the then-recent Challenger explosion dot the landscape of the song. “It’s silly, no? / When a rocket ship explodes / and everyone still wants to fly,” Prince muses in the chorus. But while he laments the problems of society, signs of the time that they are, he also embraces the hope that humanity carries in themselves – that never-ending desire to fly, despite the potential consequences. Prince then spends the rest of the record providing the music for celebrating in the face of disaster. Like the Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach,” only over a double album length, he celebrates dancing in the fire.
The first half of Sign ‘O’ the Times is the more conventional. There are party rave-ups (“Play in the Sunshine,” “Housequake“), sultry grooves (“Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” “It,” “Forever in My Life”) and even the classic sing-along with nonsensical lyrics (“Starfish and Coffee“). As with a lot of music created in the 80s, it takes a bit of time to wade through the dated instruments and effects (hello, orchestra hits!), but you find Prince moving through rock, pop, r&b, funk and soul with relative ease. Prince isn’t so much a student of mixing genres within songs as he is a chameleon among styles from song to song. He also knows how to sequence a record – there’s rarely a dull moment on Sign ‘O’ the Times. The songs, even when working in a similar feel, incorporate rhythms and percussion that keep the pace from lagging.
Without question, the second half of the album is its most notorious and most challenging. It opens with the pulsing rock of “U Got the Look,” but is quickly overwhelmed with the psycho-sexual drama of “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” A song that takes advantage of sped-up recordings of Prince’s voice, in order to raise his natural voice even higher, the song plumbs the album’s darkest depths as its narrator hypothesizes whether he could get closer to his girlfriend if he were her female best friend rather than her boyfriend. “Strange Relationship” follows the mental games of its predecessor and the whole tone of the album has shifted. But it’s the joyous, strangely moral “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” that rescues the album from itself. And anticipating the religious turn of his later-career, “The Cross” is a powerfully affecting slow burn of a blues song that would seem out of place if this were anyone but Prince.
The 9 minute “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” a live recording that is the only track on the album to actually feature the Revolution as his backing band, brings back the album’s party vibe, but also threatens to derail the entire proceeding with its length. Very little happens, but it does turn into one huge rave leading into the album’s end. Prince shouts out “confusion,” at the end of the song and leading into yet another smoking slow jam, “Adore,” that’s exactly what you get.
Much like Bob Dylan and the Clash – two artists who chose, at the height of their creative powers to embrace a double album and succeeded – Prince created a viable, passionate, diverse and convincing masterwork in Sign ‘O’ the Times. The record sets out so clearly to be both a documentary of the fractured, subversive nature of the broader culture in 1987 and a righteous party record and to do so by delving through some of the brightest and darkest parts of the human experience is both admirable and successful. Sign ‘O’ the Times is unlike almost any other record in the modern rock canon and it’s all the better for it. words/ j neas