[Today: Prince jumps around…]
Prince Rogers Nelson was one of the most ambitious musicians of the 80’s – a prolific one-man band who would lock himself away in the studio and create dozens of songs with only peripheral help from other musicians (he’s one of the best drummers in rock, but rarely mentioned as such because he’s never seen with sticks in his hands). He enjoyed the rare freedom to make music without relying on others, and the Jacques Cousteau-depths of his unreleased archives became the source of speculation during his bitter feuding with Sony during the early-90’s. But Prince was at his music-making best in the mid-80’s, when everything he touched turned to gold, and his purple tentacles seemed to be everywhere.
During that time, he was working on a number of loose-end projects that he eventually combined into a triple-LP called Crystal Ball. If he’d been coming straight off Purple Rain, he’d probably have gotten his way, but his previous album was the disappointing (but not nearly as bad as you remember) soundtrack to the puzzling film Under The Cherry Moon. A cautious Warner Brothers wasn’t interested in releasing a triple, so the running order was pruned down to what became Sign O’ The Times.
Released on the last day of March 1987, this double-LP set features 16 songs that run the gamut of Prince’s musical styles. The title track is a chilly, slithering slice of funky apocalyptica that sounds like the lead into a concept album, but from there he jumps around to funk workouts, sultry ballads, psychedelic pop, horny vamps and rock gospel. For an album that has been touted as – and feels like – an adventurous tour de force, Sign O’ The Times pretty much concerns itself with the same topics as the rest of Prince’s music (which are: 1) Let’s get freaky and/or do it, 2) Lose yourself in the music and shake your thang, and 3) Just kidding God!). But even if this album doesn’t break new philosophical ground, Prince was at the top of his game during this time, and the songs – including ‘Starfish & Coffee’ ‘Strange Relationship’ and ‘Hot Thing’ – are all outstanding.
Prince was defined by a trio of milestone albums during the 80’s. 1999 made him a star, Purple Rain made him a superstar, and Sign O’ The Times made him the artist that he would be formerly known as…