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Three decades later, Prince’s Sign O’ The Times keeps showing different sides of itself

Erik Adams: The sound of “Purple Rain” blaring from a tour bus should’ve been the first indication. I was on vacation on April 21, 2016, nearing the end of a blissfully disconnected week of not reading email, not scrolling through Twitter, and not checking The A.V. Club. Any of those sources would’ve explained why a group touring the geothermal wonders of Northern Iceland had paused to purify themselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka: Back in North America, an ambulance summoned to Paisley Park had arrived to find the home and studio’s owner, Prince Rogers Nelson, unresponsive. He was pronounced dead 19 minutes later. This was the very first news story I read upon breaking my internet fast in a café in Reykjavik, a decision I regretted almost immediately. The day before, an alphabetical trip through the songs on my iPod had turned up “All The Critics Love U In New York,” the second-to-last track on 1999. In my state of off-the-grid ignorance, I was happy to share the planet with an artist who chose six minutes of itchy grooves, dentist-drill guitars, and sarcastic asides (“Yes, we’re certain of it: He’s definitely masturbating”) as the climax for one of his biggest records.

What I loved about Prince’s music when he was alive—and what I continue to treasure nearly a year after his death—is the sense that nobody could tell him no. It was written into his original contract with Warner Bros., which made an unusual concession to the 18-year-old musical prodigy: He could self-produce his records, and he could retain the publishing rights to his songs, too. But even then, Warner didn’t offer Prince the level of artistic freedom he desired, so he changed his name to a damn symbol, worked his way out of his contract by releasing new music at a rapid clip, then celebrated the end of that business arrangement with the three-disc, three-hour-long Emancipation. By all accounts, Prince was hell to work with, but all that independence, stubbornness, and perfectionism yielded one hell of a body of work.

Three decades after its initial release, Sign O’ The Times stands as a monument to that uncompromised vision. Well, there were some compromises along the way: The songs that make up the double album were components of three separate projects Prince pursued and abandoned throughout the mid-’80s, including a collaborative effort with his longtime backing band The Revolution (all but one of whom were fired by the time of Sign O’ The Times’ release) and a solo album recorded as the androgynous alter ego Camille. Based on that information alone, there are a couple of conclusions to draw about Sign O’ The Times.

  1. Prince’s creative drive and energies were clearly peaking at the time of the album’s recording.
  2. There’s an easy explanation for why the album is so uniquely eclectic.

Prince records had variety before and after Sign O’ The Times. But none would cover as much thematic territory or musical textures so successfully. This is an ’80s Prince record with horns! And their presence doesn’t detract from the more traditionally skeletal likes of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” or “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” On Sign O’ The Times, the sex jams have “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”-style orchestra hits, psychedelia settles over school lunches, and Camille fronts a James Brown homage that replaces the sizzle and pop of Clyde Stubblefield with a thick electronic thunk.

All of which is one way of saying that Sign O’ The Times has to be one of the weirdest albums to ever top the Village Voice’s Pazz And Jop poll. I love the album’s willingness to chase strange tangents, be they the Wizard Of Oz chant in “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” or whatever the hell “the World Series of love” is. That willingness to get weird is also one of the things I’ll miss most about Prince. Alex, what parts of Prince’s legacy do you hear reflected in Sign O’ The Times?

Alex McLevy: Erik, you’ve hit on something that struck me again while listening to Sign O’ The Times recently, and that never fails to take center stage in my mind when listening to Prince records I haven’t spent time with in awhile. The guy’s musical genius was so wrapped up in his weirdness, the two are inextricable. Returning to this 1987 release for the first time since his death, I was reminded anew of just how inexplicable all this would sound to someone who didn’t grow up with Prince as a regular part of the pop music landscape. There are times on this record where I imagine a newcomer dropping the proverbial needle on a track for the first time (“The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker,” say) and thinking this guy was some fringe artist, as much Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart as funky sex-jam wunderkind.

But honestly, what most stood out for me this time around was Prince’s oft-unheralded minimalism. He’s so often portrayed, both seriously and in parody, as some over-the-top production-heavy purveyor of bombast, and on much of his other work, that can be true. But so much of this record demonstrates that his genius often lay in confining that grandiosity within stripped-down orchestrations and instrumentation. For all its pomp, the title track is basically a five-minute drum machine and Prince’s sing-speak vocal performance, harnessed to the odd guitar or synth flourish. Other tracks throughout—“It,” “Forever In My Life”—keep the number of instruments to a minimum, relying more on his pure strengths as a singer and guitarist to elevate the basic backing tracks. But even when he pulls in lots of elements, there’s more often than not a repetition to the melody, and a purity to the structure, that he handled masterfully.

I’m wondering if I’m alone in feeling like Prince was often at his best when he restrained himself in these ways, or if that’s even what others hear in this music. Thanks to the eclecticism you rightly call out, it’s easy to view the album as a massive pileup of styles and song forms, but there’s a harmony of structure running through it all—he does a million different things here, but he doesn’t do too much of any one. Erik, do you hear what I’m talking about, or are you about to call bullshit on my “Prince was a great minimalist” theory?

Erik Adams: Oh, you’re far from alone in that, Alex. My understanding of minimalism crystalized when I found out there’s no bass line in “When Doves Cry.” And—I think you were building up to this—that sense of economy prevents Sign O’ The Times from collapsing in on itself. You can throw a lot of generalizations at the double-album format—call it excessive, call it self-indulgent—but I don’t think any of them stick to this particular double album. Even when it’s eating its own tail, it’s doing so with wit and imagination: The Paisley Underground jangle of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” is better served by the lean running time of its 7-inch edit, but that omits a coda where blues licks are punctuated by drum machines straight out of the Terminator score.

Technology colors Sign O’ The Times in interesting ways, from the then-cutting-edge machinery to the medium of its release. Sign O’ The Times was a last hurrah for the vinyl era, a four-sided statement released shortly before CD sales outpaced those of LPs. Now we can listen to the whole thing, title track to “Adore,” in one 80-minute, uninterrupted sequence, but the characteristics of those component parts are still evident. You can feel the mood shift between from the gurgling There’s A Riot Goin’ On-isms of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” and the raspy come-ons of “It”; “U Got The Look” still possesses the fanfare necessary to announce the album’s second act. There’s a blueprint for the one-two punch of “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” and “Adore” in Prince’s previous double album, with the uptempo showstopper (the aforementioned “All The Critics Love U In New York”) fluffing the listener for the seductive denouement (“International Lover”). Sign O’ The Times formed a home for wayward songs, but there’s a lot of thought behind the order in which those songs play.

But I’m giving the double-disc split a lot of credence based on pure coincidence: My heaviest period of Sign O’ The Times listening coincided with the last time I carried a Discman, which meant I was listening to one CD or the other on my bus ride to work. In the process, I came to favor disc two, which hits harder and faster than the slow build of disc one. Do you have a preferred Sign O’ The Times disc, Alex? And how has the way you listen to the record evolved with the changing times?

Alex McLevy: The format change you mention was even more profound for me. I didn’t get heavily into Sign O’ The Times until the Napster era at the turn of the millennium. Which is to say, I didn’t really delve into the double-album greatness of the record until I had it on my computer. Sure, I had Purple Rain and the Batman soundtrack, but I was a Listener Formerly Known As Johnny-come-lately as far as Prince was concerned. Until I lived in the Twin Cities and developed a deeper understanding of his body of work, I had never heard a note of this record, save for the hits—“U Got The Look” and the title track—and the odd appearance of “Starfish And Coffee” on a jukebox or at a party. So when I finally got into it, it was as a sprawling mass of digital sound delivery, unaided by either disc separation or sides of vinyl.

And frankly, it took a while for the strengths of the album to manifest as a result. Honestly, this record is a great example of why, outside of convenience, the digital format is a bummer. Imagine having these songs just dropped into a folder on your computer. On first listen, it practically sounds like a damn mixtape. It takes more than a few listens to start understanding the artistic intent behind the order you rightly call out, one I feel might have been aided by possessing it in the traditional vinyl format, or even your CD experience. Especially the final three tracks—“The Cross,” “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night,” and “Adore”—which make far more sense as a triptych on the fourth side of the record, and help to make a thematic transition from the distant swagger of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man.”

So when I listen to the record now (finally on vinyl, I might add, having sensibly come around and purchased it used a few years back), it’s almost like I’m experiencing a reverse evolution, getting closer to its roots than I ever felt when I first fell in love with its iconoclastic eclecticism. There’s a sense of his restless and searching muse that I couldn’t identify when it was a mass of songs in my hard drive, a way of turning what could’ve easily become an odds-and-ends collection of orphans into a cohesive musical statement on the shifting nature of pop, R&B, and the culture at large in the back half of the ’80s. Even the more sexually explicit tracks have a distance to them, like he’s putting his own history of eros under a microscope, and seeing how it fits into the changing world around him. Then again, I don’t want to romanticize in the wake of his death—it was never my favorite Prince album, even if it might be the one I admire most. Erik, does it sound different to you in the year since he ascended into whatever velvety purple higher plane of existence he now resides in?

Erik Adams: I can’t say if Prince’s death makes Sign O’ The Times sound different to these ears—it is, the alarmist reportage of “Sign O’ The Times” aside, an album so full of life—but it does make me want to remind people that Prince could be funny. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s easy to lose sight of in light of his Important Artist status and the seriousness with which he treated his craft and his independence. That can all start to paint a picture of someone who lacks a sense of humor, but that person wouldn’t have peppered Sign O’ The Times with P-Funk chatter like Sheena Easton’s “Oh please” in “U Got The Look” or the “Shut up, already. Damn!” that kicks off “Housequake.” (Camille shares her creator’s artful way with profanity: The mid-song cry of “Bullshit!” in “Housequake” is also a treasure.) And let us not forget the Muppets Tonight clip above, in which Rizzo The Rat challenges Prince to write a song based on a breakfast menu. Cue a version of “Starfish And Coffee” that includes, among other visual wonders, a Muppet mini-Prince.

The focus on Prince’s life and work that followed his death have also made it easier to hear Sign O’ The Times’ impact and influence on other artists. The first time I heard Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!”, the pitched-up vocals of “Redbone” immediately made me think of Camille. (The mix of personal and political in its lyrics—providing the subtext to an early scene in Jordan Peele’s Get Out—makes it a match for “Sign O’ The Times,” too.) But it wasn’t until we were preparing this Crosstalk that I realized there’s so much “Adore” in the Prince pastiche of Beck’s “Debra.” Prince left behind a vast catalog of music, some of which is still making its way into the world for the first time. It’s an overwhelming wealth of material, but as Sign O’ The Times demonstrates, the breadth of that material means there’s always a new side of it waiting to be discovered.