Prince was at a crossroads during the creation of what would ultimately end up as “Sign O’ the Times”. By mid-1986, the “Under the Cherry Moon” film and its soundtrack, “Parade”, were ancient history (in his mind). In typical Prince fashion, he was already moving on to his next project or projects as it would be in this case, before he could even finish promoting whatever album he had recently released. Throughout 1986, he was writing and recording songs with the yet to be disbanded Revolution, recording songs on his own, as well as collaborating with the usual suspects that were not officially part of The Revolution but had been an important part of Prince’s touring band for “Parade” (e.g. Sheila E, Eric Leeds). All this while also waiting for his Paisley Park studio to be built and touring at home and abroad in support of the “Parade” album.
After plenty of starts and stops and flat out abandoned projects (goodbye “Dream Factory”, “Crystal Ball” and “Camille”), Prince combined the best of these efforts to create a double album worth of material that without the background knowledge of how it came about, might sound a bit disjointed. Primarily the fact that for a number of these songs, Prince sings in a slightly higher register. Of course, this is his “Camille” persona, a happy studio accident that would have sparked an entire album’s worth of material if Warner Brothers would have let him pursue fully. Rarely has the end result of a bunch of abandoned projects, changes in band members plus a failed relationship (with Susannah Melvoin) produced a masterpiece, but “Sign O’ the Times” is exactly that. But why? What makes “Sign O’ the Times”, a 16 track double album of rock, funk, pop, R&B, and hip-hop blended together in a way that only Prince can, a masterpiece? The music of course. It’s always been the music with Prince, regardless of what clothes he’s wearing or what art style he’s chosen to help embody the sound he’s crafted. Turn off MTV or avoid the theater during the few weeks that the “Sign O’ the Times” concert film ended up playing in the Fall of 1987, and you’re still left with the music. By 1987, Prince didn’t need to sell an image in the way he needed to early in his career. He had clearly proven himself and while some fans were no longer along for the crazy, prolific ride that was Prince’s career, those who stuck around were treated to an eclectic soundscape with perfectly crafted and performed song after perfectly crafted and performed song.
More than arguably any other album in his vast catalog, “Sign O’ the Times” may contain the highest number of songs on an album that qualify as someone’s “favorite”. “Adore” gets a lot of love as not only one of the best songs off the album, but a favorite Prince song of all time. However, if you’re not as big a fan of traditional/classical R&B compositions, “Adore” may not do it for you. Maybe you like socially conscious songs with a distinct, clear message, so the title track, “Sign O’ the Times” is your favorite. Maybe you love thumping bass lines you can dance to paired with lyrics about partying and having a good time. If so, your favorite track on the album could be “Housequake” or “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”. It’s possible you love an uptempo rock song that just happens to contain one of Prince’s most memorable and impressive guitar solos, so “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is your all time favorite song off the album. It’s entirely possible you really like story songs with a sprinkle of surreal imagery as well as funky and interesting musical compositions to accompany them, thus “Starfish & Coffee” or “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” are your favorites. Maybe, you’re like me and appreciate non-traditional song structure, challenging lyrical content with hidden meanings and a clear desire to push the creative boundaries within yourself. If that’s the case, then your favorite song on the album could be “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. I haven’t even touched on the Sheena Easton duet and the biggest charted hit off the album, “U Got the Look” or the beautiful and enthralling “Slow Love” and “Forever In My Life”. “Sign O’ the Times” is an embarrassment of riches.
What makes each of these sixteen songs so damn excellent? It’s not always easy to articulate a feeling or vibe that a song gives off in which you just can’t shake, but I’ll try to explain what makes these songs stand out for my ears.
Sign O’ the Times – For me personally, the lyrics are what make this song great. I love the socially conscious Prince that is put forth on the first song released from the album of the same name. “Parade” didn’t really include any tracks that tackled subjects of poverty, racism, disease (an early HIV/AIDS reference), war, drug use, gangs, etc. The stark instrumentation was a smart choice to prevent the lyrics from hiding in plain sight. Shocking that this song was a top 5 Billboard hit considering its bleak lyrical content.
“Sister killed her baby ‘cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it & we’re sending people to the moon. Last September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time, now he’s doing horse. It’s June.”
Play In the Sunshine – A great sequencing choice where Prince switches gears from doom & gloom to fun in the sun. This is catchy, dance-able, and filled with joy. Prince screams and squeals his way into our hearts but in the end, this awesome track might be a little too slight for some.
“We want to play in the sunshine. We want to be free without the help of a margarita or ecstasy.”
Housequake – Prince and company throw a huge party in order to teach us a new dance called the “Housequake”. OK it’s really just Prince alone on this one but he does an excellent job of making it feel like a team of musicians and singers accompany him on this James Brown and Parliament inspired live band party jam. The amount of fun he is having on this track makes it infectious and the thumping bass is certainly meant for Boom-boxes and boomin’ car stereo systems. “Housequake’s” horns are the low key MVP of this track.
“Question! Does anybody know about the quake? (yeah!) Bullshit!”
The Ballad of Dorothy Parker – Prince takes us on a trip to a diner on the promenade (which promenade is unclear and probably unimportant) where he meets a flirty waitress named Dorothy Parker that invites him back to her place for a “keep your pants-on” bubble bath. Dorothy is just as cool as she sounds and proves it by liking Joni Mitchell and sharing Prince’s quirky sense of humor when she pretends to be blind when he finally does take his pants off. It may not have ended in a love connection, or even sex, but the encounter leaves a mark on Prince’s protagonist since he now leaves his pants on when he takes baths if he’s feeling blue. Prince’s first story song on the album is one of those “did he totally make that experience up or was it based on a real encounter” tracks similar to “Darling Nikki” or “Little Red Corvette”. Regardless, it’s a classic non-single and the unique & quirky drum fill just enhance the unique & quirky lyrics.
“My pants were wet, they came off. But she didn’t see the movie ’cause she hadn’t read the book first.”
It – An even more sonically stark track similar to “Sign O’ the Times”, “It” utilizes a thumping, repetitive drum track with synthesized string stabs seemingly added at random. Prince repeats over and over how much he wants to do “it” with his woman. Is he pleading with her because she’s left him or maybe his lust has yet to be requited? Or is this simply a way for him to express his desire in a way that borders on monomania? It’s unclear but also totally obvious.
“With you I swear, I’m a maniac. (all right) You see IT ain’t no joke, just a natural fact. (all right)”
Starfish & Coffee – Prince gets cryptic and surreal on this Susannah Melvoin co-written song about….a girl named Cynthia Rose whose mind is free and uncluttered by mundane thoughts with little care for what others think of her. Maybe. Or it could simply be loosely based on a kid Susannah knew back in grade school who wore mismatched socks and packed strange food in her lunchbox and made all the kids mad with curiosity. Whatever the case, this song works due its ability to turn ridiculous lyrics into one of the most memorable choruses in the Prince cannon.
“Me and Lucy opened it when Cynthia wasn’t around. Lucy cried, I almost died, you know what we found?”
Slow Love – Prince gets super sensual and sultry on this baby-making ballad. The horns are exceptional (naturally) as is Prince’s vocal delivery while he expounds on the mutual benefits of taking it slow and easy with your significant other. This could have been a rote slow jam but the way Prince delivers the lines initially in his lower register before moving his way up the scale is a brilliant trick that only someone with the range of Prince can pull off masterfully.
“Let me show you what I’m made of. Tonight is the night for making….slow love.”
Hot Thing – Prince returns to the massive drum kicks and killer horns of Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss (the low key MVPs of the album) for this bass heavy funk number. Prince seems to be objectifying a beautiful, young (“barely 21”) hot thing he happens to spy at a club but it could also be a way for Prince to acknowledge he’s getting older and pretty young things maybe aren’t as interested in a man pushing thirty. As a result, he’s trying to convince her that he’s still the bomb and that he can offer a young woman something that men her age cannot. The lyrics can even be read to imply the titular “hot thing” has indeed rejected Prince, a feeling he was probably not very experienced with.
“Hot thing, what’s your fantasy? Hot thing, don’t you want to play with me?”
Forever In My Life – A sparse and beautiful ballad that ends the first disc/record is either about finding THE ONE & settling down with that person, sharing everything that life throws at you collectively or it could be about finding God and allowing God to be the guiding force in your life, if you’re willing to open yourself up and embrace Him. Or it could be about both, since the song’s lyrics seem to move from settling down with another person to finding the savior and light as the verses mount. Whatever meaning you choose to go with for your own listening experience, the song simply works on so many levels. Compositionally speaking, “Forever In My Life” is often cited for the beautiful mistake of having Prince’s backing vocals out of sync with his lead vocals. As a result, you hear what Prince is about to sing before he actually sings it, which is one of those “why hasn’t anybody done that before” moments. Another aspect of the song I truly love is when an acoustic guitar, that we haven’t yet heard in the song, comes in right before the fade out. It gives the listener the feeling that the song is just getting started but we’ll never get to hear where it ends up going. Frustrating but masterfully done. I love this song so much.
“I’m here to tell you that I’m at that road & I’d rather walk it with you than walk it alone.”
U Got the Look – Prince’s alter ego, “Camille” returns on disc/record 2 for this Sheena Easton featured dance/rock hit single. Plenty of “battle of the sexes” lines are thrown down but it’s primarily a song where Prince & Sheena get to objectify each other’s “slammin'” & “jammin'” appearances. It’s not a very lyrically deep song, but certainly plays well to a radio, dance floor, or pop crowd, explaining why it was the highest charting single from the album. The World Series of love never sounded funkier even if the slang used in the song’s lyrics now sound “heck-a” dated.
“Color you peach and black. Color me takin’ aback. Crucial, I think I want ya.”
If I Was Your Girlfriend – Another “Camille” track, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is one of the most lyrically creative songs Prince has ever written and recorded. The song is sung through the perspective of a man, in a female singing voice/persona, about how he wants to get closer to his woman in a way that only a best friend of the same sex can. Prince/Camille is desperate and jealous to experience simple things with her, things that he feels she holds back from him because of traditional gender roles. He wants to dress her before they go out, wash her hair for her, stay in the room with her when she undresses, and most poignantly, hold each other and try to imagine what silence looks like. It’s a beautiful, strange song where Prince/Camille gets more frantic and desperate as the song goes on, pleading with his lover to let him do things she’s never let him do before. Both sexual and non-sexual things. Intimate things. Give her an orgasm without needing to make love. Become naked in front of her and let her decide what he does. Allow him to kiss her…..everywhere. Try to imagine.
“If I was your one and only friend, would you run to me if somebody hurt you? Even if that somebody was me?”
Strange Relationship – Prince hides the darkness of the lyrical content about a fractured relationship and the protagonist’s controlling (bordering on abusive) nature underneath a boppy, happy sounding melody. This is Prince at his slight of hand best. Writing a dark song, with a dark theme and covering it up through musical choices that imply something much brighter. On my first handful of listens years ago, I totally missed some of the more complex messages, and its doubtful that I am the only one that didn’t catch what he was actually saying the first time around. Strange but haunting at the same time.
“I guess you know me well, I don’t like winter. But I seem to get a kick out of doing you cold.”
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man – Prince gives us one of the most memorable guitar performances he has ever put onto an official recording for this uptempo song tailor made for the radio. Another top 10 hit off the album, “ICNTTPOYM” tells the story of a girl who is desperate for love and affection in the wake of her break-up with her “old man”. She sets her sights on Prince but he dutifully informs her that he’s not the rebound type of guy. The album version goes on a meandering guitar breakdown that lasts a couple of minutes before Prince brings the house down for a quick finale. A rock masterpiece.
“She asked me if we could be friends and I said, oh, honey baby that’s a dead end. You know and I know that we wouldn’t be satisfied.”
The Cross – Prince wears his religion on his sleeve for this slow build rock anthem. In it, he creates an instantly recognizable guitar riff, a pounding drum beat and gradually intensifying vocal delivery. All by himself. A master of making what sounds like a full band performance from music 100% created only by him, “The Cross” urges us to embrace and “know” God/Jesus before we die. Even those of us that don’t consider ourselves overly religious can find joy and divinity within the confines of this amazing song.
“Black day, stormy night. No love, no hope in sight.”
It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night – This nine minute party jam is the last time we get to hear Prince and the Revolution together on an officially released track. Recorded live during the summer of 1986, shortly before Prince disbanded the group, the song gives the entire band an opportunity to party one last time, or at least that’s what it feels like for those of us that know who his backing band was during the recording of this song. It’s bittersweet in some ways but then when watching the superlative live version recorded for the “Sign O’ the Times” movie, you realize that Prince’s next group, dubbed the Lovesexy Band, certainly handles this track with the greatest of care and technique.
“No time for politics, no we don’t want to fight. Everybody get up, it’s gonna be a beautiful night.”
Adore – Prince reverts back to his original falsetto for this tender and moving love song about true devotion and an admiration for someone that is so deep it’s nearly impossible to describe. In spite of that challenge, Prince does a damn good job trying to articulate this adoration for the six and a half minutes of this epic album closer. “Adore” was never released as a proper single but no matter, it still received radio play on traditional R&B stations and is held in highest regard as one of, if not THE best non-Prince singles in his vast catalog. Which is saying a lot.
“You could burn up my clothes, smash up ride. Well maybe not the ride. But I got to have your face all up in the place.”
Memory Bank Withdrawal
“Sign O’ the Times” was considered in some ways as a return to form for Prince, which doesn’t make complete sense as “Parade” fared well critically speaking. My guess is that “Parade” was seen as a bit pretentious with its orchestral strings and fancy Parisian aesthetics, where as “Sign O’ the Times” was seen more as a musical hodgepodge of excellence. Prince may have initially wanted to release a triple album but considering that this sixteen song double album has zero weaknesses, releasing a triple album may have been pushing the limits of what consumers would be willing to bear.
It took me awhile to warm up to this album even though I had enjoyed all of the singles that I had heard on the radio and saw on MTV (i.e. “Sign O’ the Times”, “U Got the Look”, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”). Like many of Prince’s 80s releases outside of “Purple Rain” and “Around the World In a Day”, I wouldn’t hear this entire double album until the mid 90s when I had a chance to borrow fellow college student’s CD collections or had enough money to buy used copies at re-sale shops. I recall thinking that the album was a bit all over the map with its dance and rock and R&B and funk influences. Prince’s Camille personal was also a big question mark and while I understood it to be a unique creative choice, I didn’t understand why he would do that beyond just Prince being Prince. Boundary pusher.
Even though it didn’t grab me instantly in the same way that “Purple Rain” did back in 1984, “Sign O’ the Times” easily exists among my top 3 favorite Prince albums of all time due to its consistency and inventiveness. Even the more typical 80s sounding songs on the album are performed so uniquely that there is nothing truly bad you can say about any of it. None of the pretentiousness that some argue against “Around the World” or “Parade”. No long winded compositions that are too similar sounding like detractors of “1999” might cite. From track to track to track, “Sign O’ the Times” sounds like no other Prince album before it. I’ve never been more impressed with the sheer volume of masterpiece level work created for an album. I believe there should be no question that Prince was at the height of his creativity for “Sign O’ the Times” era songwriting and we are fortunate to have 16 songs to help us remember that if we should ever forget.
My order of preference of “Sign O’ the Times” tracks from most favorite to least favorite with my personal ratings next to them.
- If I Was Your Girlfriend 5/5
- Forever In My Life 5/5
- I Could Never Take the Place Of Your Man 5/5
- The Ballad of Dorothy Parker 5/5
- Housequake 5/5
- Sign O’ the Times 5/5
- Adore 5/5
- The Cross 5/5
- Starfish & Coffee 5/5
- U Got the Look 5/5
- Slow Love 5/5
- Hot Thing 5/5
- Strange Relationship 5/5
- Play In the Sunshine 5/5
- It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night 4.5/5
- It 4.5/5
Overall Score: 5/5