Prince’s renowned album Sign O’ The Times, originally released on March 31, 1987, recently had its 25th anniversary. Sign served as the finale of an 8 year stretch during which Prince played the hardest rock and the funkiest funk; he was more soulful than the soul men and poppier than the pop stars. He embodied and personified sex at its most carnal and its most spiritual, as the mayor of erotic cities, he brought explicit sex to pop music for good. But he was devoted and heartbroken as well as incorrigibly lewd, giving pleasure as much as he got it. Prince reigned over most of the 80s with Madonna and Michael Jackson, but was more prolific and wider-ranging than either.
Prince was defined by change and movement; he was restless and prolific, consistent in his inconsistency. He liked to play with roles: singing songs from the point of view of female alter-egos, acting as the tortured artist, hunkered up in his studio and recorded every instrument on an album, then exploding as an impresario performer and band leader. He also played with the expectations of his audience, and frequently defied them. Above all, rather than reacting to the work of his predecessors, Prince mainly responded to himself, quickly tiring of old styles and creating new ones. He rarely stuck to a certain collection of sounds for long, and this pattern is visible starting early in his career.
Prince first achieved success with his second album, 1979’s Prince, largely on the strength of a potent single, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Dirty Mind, released one year later, mixed musical genres with reckless abandon, held together by a wildly infectious sense of fun and the themes of dirtiness suggested by the album’s title. Prince’s next album, Controversy, established a holding pattern, so in 1982, he radically changed gears for the first time. 1999 was longer than Controversy and Dirty Mind combined. It was stealthily sequenced, beginning with three strong singles that propelled it to commercial success. The rest of the album was dominated by drum machines and synthesizers that came together to form whiplash funk vamps, skittering webs of throbbing pop, and spare electro-soul. The songs were long; they were also at times tense, brooding, paranoid, and bitter.
Prince released three more albums between 1984 and 1986 with the help of his band the Revolution, and his shape-shifting picked up speed; each album was a stark departure from the one before it. Purple Rain was his most successful album in terms of sales, combining the stream-lined, quick-hooked approach of Dirty Mind and the masterful control of electronic paraphernalia of 1999, then adding huge, volatile guitars. Prince swept any off-putting moodiness under the rug, stuck closely to themes of sex and love, and pounded his way to number one on the charts. But he was never one to be satisfied with world domination, and his next two records were strange and meandering. Instead of simple sentiments – “Do me baby,” “I would die for you” – his lyrics became less direct, even a tad hippy-dippy (for example: Open your heart, open your mind/ a train is leaving all day/ a wonderful trip through our time/ and laughter is all you pay). Around The World slowed down and swirled into tangents, incorporating a lot of strings. Parade included the occasional French monologue, passages that satirized stage musicals, and suites of interlocking songs that flowed into each other.
Then Prince pulled yet another a 180 degree turn, ditched his band, and renewed his focus on straightforward song craft. He traded in the abstruse for the clear, but with so much varied material behind him, reinventing himself was becoming more and more difficult. He added new facets to his sound, and developed the album with more ambition than ever. Pooling tracks from two aborted projects and newly written material, he had enough songs for a triple LP, which would have far exceeded the 70 minutes of 1999, his longest album to date. The product of all this, Sign O’ The Times, was a double LP (his label talked him down, though Sign still eclipsed 1999 by 10 minutes) that is usually perceived as his greatest achievement.
Prince brought two new sonic concepts to the Sign recording sessions. The first was his artificially sped up vocals, which he had explored on a planned-but-aborted project entitled Camille. Prince had worked with this technique before – most notably on the 1984 B-side “Erotic City,” a relentless seven-minute ode to the pleasures of sexual activity – but he didn’t usually play around with it on albums proper. On Sign, Prince places these distorted vocals in prominent places. They appear on the third track of the first record, “Housequake,” darting forcefully across skeletal funk that might have been on 1999, except that it is augmented with horns and subverted by the levity stemming from artificially high exclamations of “Damn” and “Bullshit.” On the second track of the second record (also a standalone single), “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Prince sings in a helium-squeak and exudes tortured angst from the first line: “If I was your girlfriend/ would you remember/ to tell me all the things you forgot/ when I was your man.” The amusing nature of that statement — delivered in weirdly high pitched tones, about some sort of Freaky Friday role switching — is overcome by the simple gravity of the question and Prince’s aching delivery. It’s a madly inventive way to ask a girl to trust him. Only at the end does he let himself go and acknowledge the humor in the lyric and delivery, muttering beneath the beat, “Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room just because you wanna undress,” and “We don’t have to make children to make love.”
Prince employed a horn section with frequency for the first time on Sign. When Prince first started playing his funk, he almost always played with the horns that were such a big part of the sound of older artists like James Brown. Without the thick bop of horns, Prince’s sound was thinner, tighter, and tenser. He included a few horns on Parade, but Sign incorporates them in at least five songs. “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” crests and ebbs like clockwork around its balanced horns and occasionally ramble into raucous honking. The sex and threat of “Hot Thing” is communicated in the nervous energy of the brass, which dances into the song about two minutes in, holding a pattern before twirling off into furious digressions of desire. “Adore” was the first straightforward soul ballad Prince had recorded since “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” the B-side of the “1999” single. That song features Prince banging away at a piano with little accompaniment besides his own multi-tracked vocals and subdued percussion, heartbroken and utterly tragic from start – “I keep your picture beside my bed/ and I still remember everything you said” – to finish – “It’s just one lousy dime, baby/ Why can’t you call me sometime.” The stark instrumentation backs up Prince’s crippling loneliness. He’d already done spare, so on “Adore,” he shoots for full, communicating the opposite sentiment, total devotion: “Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you.” The inclusion of horns makes the sound warmer, adding a bit of regal gleam and polish.
Sign O’ The Times also contains a song with a unique narrative in Prince’s 80s catalogue: “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker.” Prince has “been talking stuff in a violent room, fightin’ with lovers past,” so he leaves in a huff. Out on the town, he orders a cocktail from a waitress. The waitress, interested in a man who claims to desire no food and only alcoholic stimulation, intones “sounds like a real man to me,” and asks Prince if he wants to take a bath; he agrees but decides to keep his pants on since he “is kinda goin’ with someone.” Prince’s reply impresses the waitress, who declares again, “sounds like a real man to me.” This ballad plays like a bizarre fairy tale, complete with fortuitous occurrences and a mysterious female figure uttering confidence-reinforcing platitudes. Prince goes on to sing, “well, my pants were wet, they came off,” as if he had not foreseen the possibility of dampening his pants when he climbed into the bath. Up to this point, the song could still be humorous foreplay leading up to one of Prince’s sagas of wild sexual exploits, but it takes an unexpected turn – the waitress “pretended she was blind, an affliction brought on by a witch’s curse.” Prince decides this is a classy way for her to avoid his nakedness, so he goes back to the “violent room” he originally left, jumps into the bath with his pants on, and ends the fight he was having with “lovers past.” In this unorthodox and calmly narrated morality tale — one of the most contained songs in Prince’s catalogue, and also one of the most affecting — Prince comes down off his “Erotic City” pedestal, strays from his lover, encounters some good fortune in the form of the bewitching waitress, avoids temptation, and returns to patch things up. It adds a new dimension to Prince’s humanity.
On top of new sounds and unique narratives, Prince served up his usual treats – just more of them. The funk of the title track percolates eerily with biting guitar; “Play In The Sunshine” is a hard-charging romp; “Forever In My Life” glides along in a sputtering electronic march. His albums usually contain at least once slice of pure bubblegum – songs like “When You Were Mine,” “Private Joy,” and “Little Red Corvette” — synth-inflected pop that envelopes the listener in a buoyant, sugary rush. On Sign, Prince included three such tunes, “Starfish And Coffee,” “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man,” and “Strange Relationship.” “Starfish And Coffee” seems to be told from the perspective of a young school boy, and its refrain is pure nonsense, “Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam/ butterscotch clouds and a tangerine, a side order of ham.” Sung sweetly over four piano chords, this chorus becomes a sticky mantra, making weird melodic sense that gives the random, childish group of foods meaning. Over 16 tracks, Prince covers it all sonically and thematically — most of it more than once.
After Sign O’ The Times, Prince continued to release albums, but they became increasingly inconsistent, lacking the audacity, inventiveness, and plain old catchiness that characterized his best work. Originally, he was slated to release The Black Album after Sign, but at the last moment, he had it recalled, despite the fact that numerous copies had already been made. Previously, Prince’s erratic behavior had largely been confined to the direction of his music, but this was the first of a series of irregular personal moves with larger consequences, the most famous being the name change – Prince dropped the “Prince” title in favor of an unpronounceable symbol – and the decision to release albums at a rapid clip in the 90s to fulfill a contract with Warner, which Prince claimed was both stifling him creatively and failing to promote him properly.
But strange behavior alone does not explain Prince’s post-Sign work; even The Black Album, recorded right after Sign, bootlegged for many years after its sudden recall and then released in the 90s, lacked variation and interest – it was mainly composed of uninspired funk and a few attempts at hip-hop. In the past, Prince always fed off new musical genres, picking them up through osmosis and rolling them into his own sound, but as rap was becoming increasingly popular, it turned out to be a form of music that Prince could not absorb and make his own. His stunningly adaptable singing voice often lost character when rapping. The final members of the Revolution severed their ties with Prince in the early 90s, forcing him to form a new band, the New Power Generation. 1988 marked Prince’s 30th birthday, and his recorded output soon ceded the spot it had held during his 20s as the most exciting material in pop. He still produced popular work, but he no longer pointed music in new directions.
For Sign, Prince had a rejuvenated focus on pop songs, the sonic paint from six varied albums, and one of the most revered canvasses in the world of pop music – the double album – on which to throw it all together. The result embodied its creator: simultaneously lusty and chaste, new and old, expansive and focused, self-indulgent and generous, and of course, purely entertaining. But it was also the beginning of Prince’s demise, marking the end of the period when he was consistently the most innovative and exhilarating force on the radio. Used to making big changes to his sound album after album, the wide swathe of ground covered on Sign left him few places to go, and he was never again able to match the revolution and inspiration of his 1980 – 1987 period on recording. However, 25 years later, Sign O’ The Times remains one of the most important albums in Prince’s catalogue – meaning that it is also one of the more important albums in pop.