Album: Sign “☮” the Times
Paisley Park/Warner Bros.
What is the definition of a successful double LP? Is it a cohesive package–a collection of songs perfectly paired and organized to tell a story? Should the album have an epic underlying message? Or should it merely be a document of some creative spree, the result of which can’t be limited to a single album?
Why do some of the truly great double albums somehow manage to pull off the feat of piquing interest, despite their long-winded running time?
Consider some of the obvious contenders: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles White Album, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, The Clash’s London Calling (and later its Triple LP extravaganza Sandinista!), Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. These albums run the length of some major motion pictures, but even after multiple revisits, still demand to be experienced in their entirety.
They don’t hold the same grandiosity of, say Pink Floyd’s slightly overrated The Wall. Instead these albums are effective because of their musical breadth and ambitions. Take as much as we can come up with and release the lot of it. Give the listener the ultimate listening experience. Tear the walls down. A tried and true motto.
There’s something magical about a perfectly executed collection of songs, and it’s even more remarkable when the album is a hodgepodge with no overlying message or theme.
Prince’s Sign “☮” the Times is the artist’s greatest achievement to date. It skates around damn near every musical genre Prince could conjure up, features pop at its catchiest, rock at its most visceral, ballads at their most tender, and a couple of head scratchers thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.
The origin of Sign “☮” the Times goes like this: coming off the massive success of Purple Rain and his mid-1980s Revolution run, Prince was working on three simultaneous projects–Dream Factory (leaked in early production stage), Crystal Ball (a triple-LP that induced panic from Prince’s label) and Camille (a solo-endeavor showcasing Prince’s alter-ego). The projects were either abandoned, and the scraps and highlights from all three records were assembled for Sign “☮” the Times.
On paper the album sounds like a disaster–the result of tensions between band members and label executives. A bastard record of the time. Summed up; this could have easily been career suicide. Instead Sign “☮” the Times is not only Prince’s best effort but easily one of the greatest, and most surprising albums to come out of the 1980s.
I first dove into Prince’s purple prowess with 1984s Purple Rain. Obvious, sure. But what a masterpiece of unrelenting pop music. While some people pose the musical identity question, “Beatles or Elvis?”, I’ve been become more fascinated with the responses I get when asking: Purple Rain or Thriller?
Purple Rain is perfect. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and gives Prince reason enough to scream, “baby I’m a star!” Still Purple Rain is pop, plain and simple, with few genre-bending moments, save of course for the epic, guitar-heavy title track.
There are moments on Sign “☮” the Times that pick up exactly where Purple Rain left off. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” takes the catchiness of Rain’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m a Star,” and tacks on an extended blues-inspired instrumental outro to, you know, up the ante.
“Housequake” takes dance music into the future by running funk and soul through a drum machine and synthesizer (hints of drum and bass genre to come down the line), and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is just as sexually raw as Rain’s “Darling Nikki.”
Fortunately Prince doesn’t stop with what he was already too familiar.
“The Cross” is an epic slow-burner that blends gospel, arena rock and roll, and even a sitar to create a sound that references early Prince records but in a more polished final package.
At just under three minutes, “Starfish and Coffee” is Prince tackling a children’s song, while also embracing the magic of food and unflinching individuality.
The album’s title track is exactly what the title promises, a socially conscious soul number that truly captures the time. One of Sign “☮” the Times’ greatest feats, however, is following the direness of “Sign of the Times” with the silly, bubble gum pop of “Play in the Sunshine.” It’s as if Prince deliberately wants the listener to know that nothing about this album’s ride will seem predictable.
“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” an intoxicating live cut that showcases Prince’s stage routine of the time, accompanied by the Revolution at the top of its game. Carried along by Matt Fink’s driving drums, Wendy and Lisa’s sultry backing vocals, and even a bit of rap and jazz thrown in, the track is easily the culmination of everything heard before it. That the song might be the only time pop music will ever be able to tinker with The Wizard of Oz and live to tell about it (as seen through the song’s intro/outro of uniform “ohhh weee ohhh”) only adds to the song’s allure.
Sign “☮” the Times closes with “Adore,” a slow, sexy R&B tune perfectly suited to cap any evening. The song creeps along with its horn interludes, gospel-inspired pipes, and Prince’s unique high-pitched vocals. Its lyrics are corny at times but miraculously the song manages to feel anything but.
When we be makin’ love
I only hear the sounds
Heavenly angels cryin’ up above
Tears of joy pourin’ down on us
They know we need each other
It’s easy to mock Prince or at the very least, underestimate him. Sure he was a product of eighties glam but the man knows how to write great songs and is a masterful guitar player (his performance at Superbowl XLI remains one of the best in the event’s long-running, half-time show tradition).
Sign “☮” the Times remains one of my all-time favorites. I liken it to Stevie Wonders’ Songs in the Key of Life, in that both albums are thick with content but never bore. Certain songs pack enough energy to get you going in the morning, while others help you ease into the night.
Sign “☮” the Times was also one of those rare surprises for me. I stumbled upon its title track during a downloading sweep of Prince songs, in the wake of an unhealthy obsession with Purple Rain and the song “Beautiful Ones.” “Sign of the Times” was unlike any other Prince song I had heard prior.
It’s dark, timely, and completely honest in its perception of society. In its foreboding meanderings through the front pages of a social world in flux, Prince preaches:
In France a skinny man
died of a big disease with a little name…
You turn on the telly and every other story
Is telling you somebody died
Sister killed her baby cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it
And we’re sending people to the moon
Some say a man ain’t happy
Unless a man truly dies
The song was visceral in a way I never would have suspected from Prince and instantly made me seek out the album on CD.
Though he is relentless in the amount of music he currently releases every year, Sign “☮” the Times is his last true masterpiece. It captures everything that made Prince a star–channeling the sounds from his early days, carrying through his ascension up the pop charts–and even gives listeners hints of what was in store. I’m convinced that it’ll convert any Prince non-believers, or at the very least give listeners a glimpse into a different side of the man who famously made doves cry. Hell, it even inspired the title of the blog you’re currently reading. Enthusiasm manifests itself in many ways.