PRINCE, Sign O’ The Times (Warner/NPG Records, 2020)
All songs written, arranged, performed and produced by Prince
TRACK LISTING (Main Album)
- Sign O‘ The Times
- Play in the Sunshine
- The Ballad of Dorothy Parker
- Starfish and Coffee
- Slow Love
- Hot Thing
- Forever in My Life
- U Got the Look
- If I Was Your Girlfriend
- Strange Relationship
- I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man
- The Cross
- It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night
When Prince took over the world in 1984 with his landmark album Purple Rain, I barely noticed. My love of what ultimately became “Classic Rock,” aka Album-Oriented Rock, was pretty much cemented. It was followed the following summer by what I call the King Crimson/College Rock Renaissance. I had no room for Prince.
Fast forward to May of 1988, when I met Ed Wehrenberg, who became and remains on of my dearest friends. He was (and remains) a Prince fanatic, and asked me if I was a fan. All I could offer was a polite shrug. Before I knew it, I was at his home watching a concert video for what would become the album that both created and cemented me as a Prince fan, Sign O’ The Times.
This is one of those “landmark” albums. It helped drive home the genius of Prince. It brought the many styles, capabilities, and even personalities of the man to the fore. And while I have always clamored for him to be in front of a spectacular band (as he was for the tour behind this album), even I had to marvel over the silks of a double album recorded almost completely alone.
If the recently released deluxe box set of Sign O’ The Times (Warner/NPG Records, on sale now) sends any message, it’s “You don’t know the half of it” where this album is concerned. Having recently broken up his seminal backing band The Revolution, Sign appears to be the end result of the beginning of at least two other records in Dream Factory and Crystal Ball. There might have even been a third in Camille, Prince’s more effeminate, falsetto-spouting later ego, who shows up on Sign via tunes like “Housequake” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”
But Prince was forced to pivot for a variety of reasons, most of which are documented in the beautifully assembled hardback book that housed nine CDs and a DVD. After clearing the necessary business and personnel hurdles, we find ourselves with this timeless double album. And while it’s impossible to believe we were shortchanged, one can only imagine what we could have gotten in a larger package. Lucky for us, that day is finally at hand.
The deluxe treatment gives us a remastered version of the album, a disc of radio edits and single remixes, three discs worth of tracks from Prince’s legendary vault, a 2-CD live recording from Utrecht, the Netherlands (recorded in June of 1987), and a DVD of a live New Year’s Eve performance from Prince’s headquarters, Paisley Park (recorded six months after the Utrecht show). The only thing missing (which I had high hopes for) was a blu-ray edition of the legendary Sign O’ The Times concert video that made me a fan in the first place. To be fair, that gig was recorded in the Netherlands as well (Rotterdam), and is alleged to be full of musical glitches Prince fixed in the studio later on. Still, it would’ve been a nice inclusion.
There can be no questioning the quality of the album’s remaster. The bass has more depth, and the midranges have increased punch. There is also more detail coming from the horns and rhythm guitars, which are sometimes buried in the mix. Fans not looking to make the “Deluxe” plunge will be more than happy with this set, which is available for individual sale. Speaking of which, fans seeking the “Gold Standard” can purchase this entire set on vinyl for about 80 dollars more.
B-sides and “vault” tracks are generally aimed at completists, who are as interested in the pregnancy as they are the baby it produces. But with Prince, the process is every bit as fascinating as the product. Every song reveals a little about the man’s methodology, providing listeners with a map to the song that ultimately ended on the album. It is a fascinating and highly immersive experience.
Not enough superlatives can be given to the Utrecht performance. Prince and his band (notably featuring Sheila E. on drums) are locked in from the first note, and merrily follow their leader wherever he wants to go. The CDs, unlike the ’88 video, features the band’s complete set. This gives us a better idea of how the band incorporated classic material with the new. A personal highlight is “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” which is one of the brightest spots of the video. The Utrecht performance absolutely slays, completely blowing away what already looked like the perfect performance. It must be heard to be believed.
The DVD features a special appearance by Miles Davis, as he and Prince deeply revered one another. As a lifelong Miles fan, I have to be honest: Davis didn’t contribute a lot to the band’s performance, outside of gravitas. His participation on “Can I Play With U?” is much more compelling, and can be found in the “Vault” recordings.
The hardcover book attached to the set is almost worth the price of admission on its own. It features spectacular color photographs of Prince and (occasionally) his touring band, as well as essays and notes about the recordings. It’s a treasure trove worthy of deep and intense study.
Without question, Sign O’ The Times is one of those “records you should’ve heard by now.” It has influenced artists as diverse as Bruno Mars and Steven Wilson. The album remains timeless, and deserves time on everyone’s player of choice. The “Deluxe” set simply provides several layers and additional icing to an already delicious cake.
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