Prince - Sign O The Times

In a lot of ways, Prince’s Sign “O” The Times, which celebrates its 25th anniversary tomorrow, is the last great double-album of the LP era. When I bought a used-CD version years after it came out, I remember being a bit weirded out: The 79-minute album could just barely fit on one 80-minute CD, but the still came packaged in two separate CD cases, both of which looked almost exactly the same and which were held together with a rubber band when I bought them. If Prince or his label wanted to make things easy on the customers, they could’ve just thrown it all onto one disc. But user-friendliness wasn’t the point. The point was that Prince was joining a long and distinguished listeners here, throwing all his sprawling ambition out there on one piece of work and daring the universe to catch up with him. Sign “O” The Times is pretty staggering in its breadth, with its 16 songs veering wildly from one genre to the next and taking on big subjects with slippery panache. It’s the moment where Prince, who’d long known that he was a genius, made absolutely certain that the rest of the world knew it as well.

As with all great artists, we can divide Prince’s career up into interlocking chronological periods. And when Prince released Sign “O” The Times in 1987, he was a few years removed from one period ending. As an era-defining pop superstar, Prince had peaked with Purple Rain — both the classic album and the still-kinda-underrated movie — in 1984. Since then, he’d folded inward to an extent. Under The Cherry Moon, his next movie, was a notorious bomb. Around The World In A Day and Parade, his next two albums, were two of his least satisfying and successful, though the latter did give us “Kiss.” But that downward career turn almost happened by design. Purple Rain had been a Moment, and unlike other superstars of the era, Prince knew that he couldn’t just come back and make something bigger than that. So he went a different route instead, turning towards a flowery, vaguely Beatles-informed smooth-rock psychedelia, a sound that didn’t come as naturally to him as the muscular new-wave funk-pop that had made him famous. Sign “O” The Times, which Prince had wanted to make a triple-album at first, didn’t serve as a return to Purple Rain-era sales dominance, but it did something arguably even more valuable. It crystallized all the artistic experimentation of those previous two albums into something huge and tangible, displaying Prince as a musical adventurer without equal. Prince tries out a ton of different musical ideas on the album, and he nails almost all of them. It’s a thing to behold.

The album-opening title track is the one that announces the album as a grand statement, an everything-is-wrong harangue along the lines of “What’s Going On.” Its actual content is a little goofy; I don’t know how worried Prince really was about the teenagers whose “idea of fun is being in a gang called the Disciples, high on crack, toting a machine gun.” (This has always bugged me: Why did he specify the gang’s name? And was he talking about the Chicago-based Gangsta Disciples in particular?) But the bubbling, minimal, uncanny backing track, like a lot of other stuff on the album, predicts the warped and dubbed-out R&B that Timbaland would get famous making a decade later. “Slow Love” is a dizzy old-school R&B fuck-anthem that proves that Prince could’ve done just that for his entire career and made himself an immortal of the form. “U Got The Look” is pounding, glimmering new-wave with some surprisingly discordant guitar soloing. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is cascading and virile top-40 stuff that would’ve fit just beautifully on Purple Rain. “Housequake” is what mid-’60s James Brown might’ve sounded like if he was really, really uptight, and the nine-minute “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” is an expansive funk throwdown where even the fake live-crowd noise is exactly in its place.

For a lot of people, the album’s real classic is “Adore,” the album’s closer and the one that pushes Prince’s soul showman side toward its platonic ideal, ducking and feinting away from obvious crowd-pleasing moments but still hitting titanic falsetto high notes at every available opportunity. But my two favorite songs on the album are the ones that step the furthest away from what Prince is supposed to be good at. The utterly gorgeous “Starfish And Coffee” is practically a Suzanne Vega song; it’s jazzy singer-songwriter pop with gospel-style backing vocals, fluttery harp runs, gigantic drums, and lyrics that, on the chorus, lovingly detail someone’s psychedelic breakfast. It makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s one of the single prettiest things Prince ever recorded. “The Cross,” meanwhile, is straight-up epic-rock power-balladry, like Prince looked hard at what U2 were doing in the same moment and then decided to top it. Those two songs make up a pretty stunning argument: Prince wasn’t just great when he was stepping out of his comfort zone. He was best when he was doing it.

Even with all its big leaps and breathtaking landings, I can’t say that Sign “O” The Times is Prince’s best album. I’d give that distinction to Purple Rain. On that one, Prince didn’t divide up all his gifts into different songs; he found ways to incorporate all of them into every song without making them sound like hypercrammed messes. But Sign “O” The Times is probably Prince’s most complete piece of self-presentation, the best possible example of how he wanted the world to see him. It’s an absolute essential, one of a handful in the man’s catalog.

Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about with this album. What’s your favorite song from it? Your favorite moment? Where do you think it fits in the overall arc of Prince’s career? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (28)
  1. I’ve never been able to appreciate this album as much as I’d like to because I’ve always been put off by the horribly muddy mix. Was it ever remastered?

  2. Due to his dispute with Warner Bros. and/or possibly his disdain for revisiting past work, none of his albums have been remastered, ever.

  3. The Japan issue SHM-CD sounds much better. Although technically not remastered, the mastering and audio quality of the SHM-CD is far better than the original CD release of this album.

  4. I would just like to point out in the I tried reefer 4 the very first time over 20 years ago and have still yet to do horse. Am I doing something wrong ?

  5. My favorite song from the album, and possibly an all-time Prince fave for me, is “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. I mean, it’s true to what you were speaking to earlier: the bridge between his synth-pop and softened drum kicks of yore and dipping his toe into his more dirty funkier period. The lyrical flip is great too.

  6. Sign ‘O’ the Times falls right behind The Gold Experience in my list of favorite Prince albums, and it has nearly as much replay value and genre diversity. I disagree about Parade and Around the World in a Day—sure, they weren’t commercially successful, but I love his early psychedelic experimentation and find them significantly more satisfying as full albums than (at least) For You, Prince, Diamonds & Pearls, and everything post-Emancipation. (typo fyi: machine gun, not machine gang)

  7. Saw Prince a few years ago, had no idea how amazing he was going to be. I was converted right then…will have to visit this album on spotify.

  8. “Starfish and Coffee” is still my favourite track from that album.

  9. Parade is definitely NOT one of his least satisfying albums. I’ll listen to Parade over Controversy and 1999 any day. I think he tackles several styles of music on that album successfully. The bassoon (is it a bassoon?) on Girls & Boys is super funky and Mountains is straight up awesome–music video included. I still get joy out of Prince singing “I can make you H-A-P-P-Y” on New Position and I’ve probably heard it hundreds of times.

  10. Well, This is probably my third favorite Prince album behind Dirty Mind, and Controversy. Dirty Mind is by far my favorite as When You Were Mine is one of My favorite songs of all time period. With that said this record is the shit… Probably his last great album. My fav song from this one is I could Never Take the place Of Your Man. On a side note. I recently got the Vanity 6 self titled album, where Prince wrote all the songs, and it had some killer jams on it. Its like finding a long lost Prince album.

    • Last great album? If you’re into U2, you probably think Joshua Tree is their last great album too, right? Everybody can have an opinion, but Lovesexy was a great follow up. Just like SOTT, it didn’t sell, but had great compositions. Grafitti Bridge had Joy In Repetition, The Question of U, and Thieves in the Temple, and a lot of filler too, but still a very good album. 3121 was great, and Lotus Flow3r is one of the best albums in the last 10 years. Of course, Lotus Flow3r was 3 cds, MPLS Sound and the Girl Album are only for die-hards, but Lotus Flow3r found Prince playing his guitar like he was possessed. Sad that nobody listens to Prince’s post 80′s recordings. Sure, there are some bad songs, but there’s still a bunch of great ones. “Future Soul Song” from 20Ten is as good a slow song as Prince has made. It is better than Adore to me. It’s just most older people like us lose our ability to listen to new music. We only “hear” it and then ignore it. Take the time to listen to Prince’s music, and there is a lot of great stuff to enjoy.

  11. this was all i used to listen to. amazed you could do a write up and not mention ‘i could never take the place of your man.’ easily my favorite song from this album, and probably my favorite prince song. 25 years. damn.

  12. This is probably my favorite Prince Album

  13. Correct me if I’m wrong but when Sign ‘O’ the Times came out on CD, the maximum CD length was 74 minutes, right? So it actually wouldn’t have fit on one disc. Similar to why The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me album had to omit one song when it was originally released on CD. Anyway, it’s a terrific album.

  14. To most die hard Prince fans, this is his masterpiece. The thing is, I remember the misstep of choosing “If I Was Your Girlfriend” as the second single. I know, I know. It’s a classic now, but at the time, it was not going to get any real radio airplay(no video either BTW). If the second single had been “U Got The Look”, the album would have stayed in the Top 10 for a long time. By the time they released that song officially, SOTT had lost it’s chart momentum. The singles charted well, but the album sales went into the crapper. It was also substantially more expensive than a single CD or album was at the time. Regardless it’s a classic and like the rest of his catalog, desperately needs to be remastered.

  15. Definitely one of his best albums. I actually pick Parade & Around the World in a Day both over Purple Rain. “If I was Your Girlfriend” is my favorite song from this album, but its b-side, “Shockadelica” might just be the best Prince song ever. The Ween cover of Shockadelica also beats out Sinead for the best Prince cover too.

  16. I almost stopped reading at the reference to Around The World In A Day and Parade as being “least satisfying”…

    No, the Warner Bros. albums released from 1978 to 1989 have never been remastered; but yes, the EQ tweaking on the SHM-CDs is astoundingly good.

    And as a previous commentator pointed out, the technology wasn’t available in 1987, to fit 80 minutes of music onto one regular audio CD.

    Prince didn’t predict ” the warped and dubbed-out R&B that Timbaland would get famous making” he created it.

    It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night doesn’t feature “fake live-crowd noise.” It was a live recording by Prince & The Revolution, which was later given “fake” musical enhancements in the studio.

    Corrections out of the way, I’d just like to add that you can divide popular music before this album and after this album, in the same way historians use B.C. and A.D. Sign ‘O’ The Times influenced everything that came after it.

  17. great album, one of his best. it’s on my surround sound system all day long

  18. BEST ALBUM EVER BY ANYONE!?

    Seriously, this record sits proudly alongside ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Radio City’ and a few others on the shortlist for greatest ever.

  19. Okay, I’m a die hard and I easily fall into the trap of this being my favorite Prince album. That said, I think it’s fair to say, whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Prince fan (with purple pubes no less?) or a newcomer, this is easily one of his most satisfying and engaging works. If I ever felt the need to make a desert island disc list, this would surely be on it, and it would probably be the only thing I’d need by Prince to be included. It’s just so… complete. Funny to think it was almost a triple album, one of equal quality but certainly not as concise, if you can label a double album that.

    I’m also of the minority that doesn’t look at Purple Rain as a favorite, but more as a very targeted attempt at making him a megastar. Great songs there, all of them, but it doesn’t have the same cohesive vibe of his best works. 1999, Parade, Dirty Mind, they are all so nicely formed. Even his later period works like Come and The Gold Experience are frustratingly underrated, although Gold treads a similarly difficult line as it wants to include everything in one package, logic be damned.

    I’m hoping that sometime soon, Prince will come to his senses and embrace his back catalog with reissues and some of his countless, unreleased recordings. At the end of the day I’m sure he wants to get paid first and foremost, and good for him, that’s the American way after all, but I feel like he’s forgetting all the people that would gladly pay if gave them the opportunity. Make your bank account and your fans happy, Prince, because your fans will thank you time after time, whereas your accountants are just glad you’re paying them.

  20. SOTT – “It’s the moment where Prince, who’d long known that he was a genius, made absolutely certain that the rest of the world knew it as well.” That say’s it all!

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