Having suggested featuring a Prince album at the Discrepancy Records blog, I realised as I unwrapped the album that my knowledge of the small purple one’s music was rather limited. In fact the only Prince items in the VC collection are a double CD of his hits and the one where he’s being a coy centrefold on the cover. The ‘Best of’ is a good place to start, I thought. And it was. A warm up to the 1987 album many consider his finest.
While I listened to the four sides the first time, getting a feel for the music and the flow of the thing, I read a little on the net. About his output, about his history, about where this album fits into a large catalogue. About the perils of opioid painkillers. I remembered a feature article in Uncut after he died. Did I still have that particular edition of the magazine? There it is, a thirty page extravaganza of the artist formerly known as Prince Rogers Nelson. Better read it, I suppose.
Feeling better equiped to tackle this prolific musician, I sat down for a close listen to Sign O’ The Times. I was really struck by the synth-pop / electro-funk feel of a number of the tracks. And by the diversity of styles. Made a few notes. There’s a potential theme here; something about his diverse personas, multi-skills, and hybrid styles.
After digesting the Uncut feature, I decided a proper introduction for my piece was warranted, especially as this was the first time the DR blog had featured Prince. That tends to push out the length a bit, but I thought it appropriate and expected to be able to bring it in at around 600 words, my notional upper limit for the weekly album reviews.
Drafted the first two paras.
Thinking about the photo, I was drawn to one of two options. One was to approach my friend who is a drummer to see if I could work some actual kit into the picture. The other was to utilise a road sign near chez Vinyl Connection.
Opting to try the latter, I lugged a stepladder down the street, blue-tacked the cover in what I hoped was the centre of the sign, and, balancing precariously, took the shot. There was some sense of unease as I flashed to all those falls sustained by middle-aged men climbing ladders.
Redeemed the download so that I could listen while writing. Spent a frustrating 20 minutes working out how to pair the new iPod bud thingees to the desktop where I write.
Lots of interruptions today. A draughtsman to advise on adding a verandah over the front porch. Someone to repair the washing machine. Arrival of a book of poetry and a new vinyl box containing the entire output of UK folk-rock outfit Trees, including the most soiled record I’ve ever seen. Had someone dribbled mayonnaise on this LP? Cue cleaning some records.
It was after ten, with the household either in bed or heading that direction, that I returned to the keyboard. A solid ninety minutes and I was happy enough with the piece. Sent a text to Ms Connection (long in the land of nod) that it was on the desktop for her eagle editorial eye. I do the late shift, she’s an early riser.
In response to Ms Connection’s input, made a couple of small alterations.
Having decided on a title, uploaded the article and photo to the DR web site, scheduling publication for the following morning.
Made a note to check the bargain bins for Prince CDs next time I’m out digging.
Started thinking about the album for next Friday.
He was once described as “the most complete rock star there is”. Other perspectives have included workaholic, perfectionist, narcissist, introvert and control freak. He sang constantly about sex before becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Between 1980 and 1988 he released an astonishing eight albums; nine if you count the Batman soundtrack and ten if the unreleased Black Album is included. Holed up in a giant recording studio cum mansion, he played dozens of instruments and wrote hundreds of songs. He was Prince Rogers Nelson and his death from an accidental overdose of painkillers in April 2016 sent shockwaves through the music world.
That incredible work ethic and prolific output was matched by a hunger to synthesise diverse styles of music into a cohesive, Princely whole. As well as the obvious James Brown and Marvin Gaye influences, there is a love of rock (Little Richard) and a delight in song craft (Stevie Wonder). Prince admired Sly and the Family Stone and soul great Jackie Wilson while having his own unique take on the gospel tradition. He grew up with disco and loved synth pop. All this diversity is displayed on his outstanding1987 double album, Sign O’ The Times.
Beginning with the sparse electro-funk of “Sign O’ The Times”, Prince slides open the doors to a sprawling sixteen song set with a lyric about poverty and struggle. This downbeat yet mesmerising opener sounds like a union of Marvin Gaye (What’s Goin’ On era) and Kraftwerk. The very next song—the upbeat “Play In The Sunshine”—demonstrates the confidence of the artist still known as Prince. It’s just so bouncy and up, yet layered with everything from playground sounds through a muted guitar solo to a percussion workout and a nursery rhyme coda. This is a musician playing with a full deck of musical and production tricks. “Housequake” is next and its odd Devo/James Brown hybrid rocks its high-heeled boots off. Side one closes with “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” which, amongst other things, quotes Joni Mitchell. If you are wondering, “How diverse is this freakin’ album?” the answer is simple. Very. It is diverse in just the same way that great double albums are often a constellation of treasures—we’re talking The White Album, London Calling, Songs In The Key Of Life. Yes, it’s that good.
One of the key aspects of Sign O’ The Times is Prince’s use of the Fairlight digital synthesiser. This Australian computer musical instrument allowed sampling of sounds and almost endless options for manipulating those samples. The Purple One used it to shift the pitch of his voice, creating the much higher “female” vocals of his alter ego “Camille”, heard on “Housequake”, the squirmy “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and the frankly disturbing “Strange Relationship”.
Yet for all the shallow relationships (“Hot Thing”), obsession with sex (“It”) and themes of urban decay, Sign O’ The Times has moments of beauty and passion. “Slow Love”, despite being about sex (yet again), is a super ballad while “The Cross” explodes with psychedelic guitar. “Adore”, the closing track, is swooningly rich.
At the end of the day, Sign O’ The Times makes a strong case to be considered Prince’s magnum opus. All his characters are present: priapic satyr, pious believer, crooner, rocker, guitar hero, curious yet removed observer of the human condition. All his skills are visible too: composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, pop craftsman, visionary producer. As a footnote, if two records aren’t enough to slake your thirst, there is a four LP version and a Super Deluxe Edition too, on vinyl or CD. Such choice. It’s a sign of the times.
First published at Discrepancy Records on 4 March 2022. Reprinted with kind permission.