Happy 30th Anniversary to Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, originally released March 31, 1987.
Sign O’ the Times is often regarded as Prince’s magnum opus by fans and critics alike for its high-heeled author’s willingness to examine his own life and engage the world around him like never before. The album cover—seemingly poking fun at the idea of his best years being behind him—signifies a new self-awareness and depth. With 16 songs clocking in at roughly 80 minutes, Sign O’ the Times is a masterclass on how pop music can matter when it needs to.
By the spring of 1986, Prince had been working on two separate projects only days before Parade entered the shops. One was what would have been the final Revolution album (Dream Factory), the other was a solo effort unveiling a female persona with high-pitched vocals (Camille). Prince consolidated material from both shelved projects, including some new songs, into a triple-disc set entitled Crystal Ball after disbanding the Revolution. Warner Bros. Records forced him to trim it down to a double-album since his last two projects failed to reach the commercial heights of Purple Rain. As a result, we’ve got Sign O’ the Times—an album that redefined the way we bond with music: melodically, psychologically, and emotionally.
By 1987, Prince already established himself as a master musical fusionist on his previous efforts, but Sign O’ the Times houses more genres than ever before, putting the listener in motion at both ends of the spinal column. “Play in the Sunshine” blends ‘60s pop, rock, and folk into a sun-up, windows-down delight, inviting anyone to “dance every dance like it’s gonna be the last time.” “Housequake” is a funk firebomb that, if released as a single, could’ve defined any artist’s career. The salacious “Hot Thing” waves its freak flag proudly with its sputtering bassline, frizzy synths, and devilish saxophone riffs courtesy of “Mr. Madhouse” Eric Leeds.
“U Got the Look,” an ultimate battle of the sexes between Prince and Scottish pop vocalist Sheena Easton (for whom he wrote “Sugar Walls” in 1984), soared to #2 on the pop charts with its glam metal guitars, funhouse synths, and bursts of Sheila E.’s funky percussion. Sign’s penultimate jam, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” is a live-studio hybrid with his iconic Revolution band at the peak of their powers. The core elements—a four-on-the-floor drumbeat, rowdy horns, a Winkie Chant, and funky guitar licks—are sourced from an August 1986 gig in Paris, augmented by minimal edits and vocal overdubs, resulting in an innovative and exciting twist on James Brown’s big band soul workouts of the ‘70s.
Complementing his ambitious genre-hopping is his gift for storytelling, which earned him plenty of praise and respect from his critics and peers. Lead single and opening track “Sign O’ the Times” became a platform to grieve for victims of AIDS (“a big disease with a little name”), gang violence, abortion, and substance abuse (“In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time, now he’s doing horse – it’s June”), among other social ills. Combining bluesy guitar licks with Fairlight synthesizer chords, the title track jolted to #3 on the Billboard pop charts without the benefit of a music video, a bold move on the singer’s part, as most artists leaned heavily on MTV as a promotional tool in the 1980s.
The Music Snobs once described “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” as “the complete Mt. Everest of drum programming,” and the metaphor is apt. Those smooth yet propulsive rhythms depict an affair with an attractive waitress, similar to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” While bathing together, Dorothy ignores an incoming phone call and reassures Prince that “whoever’s calling can’t be as cute as you.” Ridden with guilt, he reconciles with his girlfriend he’d been fighting with earlier by taking a bath with her as if he was purifying himself from all his wrongdoings.
“Starfish and Coffee” contains a gentleness that Prince doesn’t often display outside of a romantic setting. Susannah Melvoin (Prince’s then-fiancée and twin sister of ex-Revolution bandmate Wendy) told Housequake that the song’s protagonist Cynthia Rose was an autistic classmate of hers growing up; it’s likely that her glass-half-full optimism inspired Prince to write this touching tribute given his battles with epilepsy as a child.
“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is one of those rare recordings that few would dare to try, let alone pull off successfully. You almost feel as though you’re eavesdropping on the most private of conversations, but the song reaches its loving hand out to create the illusion of a perfect relationship (“Would you run to me if somebody hurt you, even if that somebody was me?” and “I just wanna be all of the things you are to me”). The chilling Linn-Drums and slap bass, eerie synths, and pitch-shifted Camille vocals blur the lines between fantasy and reality, soul and funk, male and female, until no lines exist at all. Upon its release, “Girlfriend” limped its way to #67 on the Billboard pop charts since radio stations deemed it too bizarre to promote. Fortunately, the 21st century opinion of the track is widely positive, reaching the Top Five on the Peach & Black Podcast’s worldwide poll.
“Strange Relationship” reveals how scars from past romances can taint the waters of a new one. “I came and took your love, I took your body / I took what self-respect you ever had,” Prince confesses over the head-bobbing funk groove. “I took you for a ride and baby I’m sorry / But the more you love me, sugar, the more it makes me mad.” Some may claim the track romanticizes domestic violence when, in truth, he’s simply being honest about his shortcomings. Wendy & Lisa gave the original 1982 demo a slow-burning Middle Eastern vibe before the Revolution disbanded; however, Prince muted their contributions and added Camille vocals in the final mix.
It’s easy to get caught up in the bright sonics of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and miss its mature undertones entirely. Prince approaches a woman seeking a man to replace the one who left her “with a baby and another one on the way.” He turns her down, explaining, “I may be qualified for a one-night stand, but I could never take the place of your man.” She tearfully asks if they can be friends, and his response: “Oh honey baby, that’s a dead end / You know and I know / That we wouldn’t be satisfied.” The high-energy rocker peaked at #10 in the United States and a similar type of seamless rock, pop, and blues fusion would soon appear on the late-great George Michael’s 1987 opus, Faith.
While it’s important to acknowledge Prince’s genre-hopping diversity and thought-provoking lyrics, his vocal prowess is a wonder on many levels. The freakish carnality of “It” channels the spirit of Teddy Pendergrass in what seems like an exorcism (“I think about it, baby, all the time, alright / It feels so good it must be a crime, alright”). The fluffy, street-corner harmonies on “Slow Love” evoke memories of the bygone doo-wop era à la Sam Cooke or The Flamingos.
The vulnerability of “Forever in My Life” has a charming, off-kilter vocal arrangement that was purely accidental; chief engineer Susan Rogers told PodcastJuice that Prince’s background parts were recorded ahead of his lead, and to her surprise, he liked the effect and kept it as is. “The Cross” showcases Prince’s voice blooming from somber gospel whispers (“Black day, stormy night / No love, no hope in sight”) to a soaring punk-rock revival (“Soon, all of our problems will be taken by the Cross”). By the song’s closing note, listeners feel as if they’ve collapsed onto the altar with their arms extended skyward.
Rounding out the album is “Adore,” one of the greatest love songs to ever bless a pair of eardrums. His buttery falsetto melts all hearts within listening distance, reminding people of what made his voice such a revelation in the first place. “Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you / You own my heart and mind, I truly adore you / If God one day struck me blind, your beauty I’d still see / Love’s too weak to define just what you mean to me.” Now, who wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that? Furthermore, he’s able to brag about himself (“I’d like to think that I’m a man of exquisite taste”) and crack a joke without breaking the mood (“You could burn up my clothes, smash up my ride…Well, maybe not the ride”).
Some people overuse the term “genius,” but Sign O’ the Times alone provides indisputable evidence that Prince is worthy of the label. Largely produced, arranged, composed, and performed on his own, he encompasses all the emotions and struggles of his life into a diverse collection of sounds that continue to echo through many of our favorite albums. “I think what I appreciate most is the record’s sense of mystery,” says Prince biographer Matt Thorne. “You could listen to this album forever and still not make complete sense of it.” If you’ve never heard Sign O’ the Times before, firstly, shame on you. And secondly, play it and experience the delights you’ve missed out on for the past 30 years!
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