What does it sound like?:
If you are capable of doing anything, why not do everything at once? Sign “☮︎” the Times is Prince’s definitive statement, a double album displaying the full spectrum of his gifts, delving into all aspects of his bizarre imagination and stunningly performed almost entirely by himself. It is a musical embodiment of Prince’s flibbertigibbet personality and may well be the peak of his career.
In 1986/7, you’d think he had nothing to prove. Purple Rain had been an enormous global success, establishing him as a bone fide film star who could also effortlessly fill stadiums. He was a superstar, charisma oozing from his pores, living life exactly as he pleased, mostly writing, performing and recording his own songs. However, the movie Under The Cherry Moon had been a critically panned flop and he’d broken up his band, The Revolution. Some had been with him since the seventies, but they had become unwieldy and unruly with the addition of members of The Time and three so-called Bodyguards. Still, his restless creativity threatened to overwhelm him. A full band double album, Dream Factory, a pseudonymous alter ego project, Camille, and a proposed triple album, Crystal Ball, all reached their final stages. There was also the homage to the jazz fusion Miles Davis of the seventies, Madhouse. However, he couldn’t easily satisfy Larry Waronaker at Warner Brothers, who, with a watchful eye on potential profit, rejected those outlandish ideas. After the dizzy heights of Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and Parade had diminished returns. Prince needed a product that could sit comfortably at the top of the charts.
Sign “☮︎” the Times is an eclectic smorgasbord of surprises, constantly confounding the listener, never settling. Some songs twist and turn two or three times in the space of a few minutes. The opening crunch of guitar and snap of snare drum of the title track reveals a Prince we haven’t met before, one mired in the gritty reality of drugs and AIDS. But, immediately, we slip through the looking glass into a world of frivolity and unbridled joy in Play In The Sunshine, a track that incorporates schoolyard noises, rockabilly, and guitar heroics, then accelerates into raucous jazz fusion. Housequake is no ordinary floor filler, as the doubled up bass and drum lines are so syncopated, its groove shifts the ground beneath the feet. The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker, “dishwater blond, tall and fine”, could well be a weird update of Norwegian Wood with its will she/won’t she tease and the crucial involvement of a bath. Side Two is reminiscent of The White Album. The song It is a prolonged extrapolation of Why Don’t We Do It In The Road and a reminder that Prince thinks of little else but sex. Starfish & Coffee contains the kind of nursery rhyme chorus The Beatles composed in their sleep and some backward guitar for good measure. In Slow Love, Prince performs a nostalgic fifties torch ballad in full croon, much as McCartney used to revisit Music Hall. Hot Thing is the equivalent of Helter Skelter, except that Prince’s default position is Funk, the subject matter off the top of his head is a sexy young woman and it’s horns that run wild rather than guitars. Forever In My Life is devotedly romantic, sitting quietly and unassuming at the end of a side just as Harrison’s Long, Long, Long does. Side Three is where Sign “☮︎” the Times gets properly carnal, but, unlike five years previously on 1999, he seems much more respectful of the women he desires, genuinely curious and interested in what makes them tick. U Got The Look is full-on horny toad, though, with the previously demure Sheena Easton. Over an intense, throbbing rhythm, they sound equally enthusiastic about “body slamming”. It’s no surprise to learn that Prince thinks girlfriends routinely wash each other’s hair, undress and kiss each other “down there, where it counts” but the real mindboggle in If I Was Your Girlfriend is trying “to imagine what silence looks like”. Strange Relationship seems tame in comparison, bouncing along on P-Funk squelches, its perversions implied rather than openly declared. I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man is positively sensible and grown up, Prince turning down an opportunity to take advantage of a vulnerable woman by playing two very different guitar solos over a swinging rock beat, one energetic and excited and the second subdued and bluesy, as though regretting his decision at the end of the evening. Side Four is generally where a double album frays at the edges but Prince starts strongly with The Cross, a devotional response to the title track that explodes into a huge stadium anthem at halfway. Initially, It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night seems out of place, a live crowd-pleaser performed by The Revolution in Paris, Prince in a minor role. However, given the material in his back pocket, it must be a deliberate fond farewell to Bobby Z, Wendy & Lisa and co. The final track, Adore, a rapturous soul ballad, represents Prince’s holy grail, the point at which sex and love transcend into a perfection so beautiful that angels cry.
The keepers of The Vault have a formula. The original album is remastered, the B sides, single edits and extended versions have a disc to themselves, previously unreleased material recorded contemporaneously is polished and sees the light of day, plus there is a live concert of the tour, a DVD and a lush booklet. Bernie Grundman does an outstanding job on the remastering. Of all the Prince albums, the mix of Sign “☮︎” the Times is the most muddy. Now, the clarity is astonishing, particularly on the most complex backing tracks, such as Play In The Sunshine or Starfish And Coffee. Connoisseurs of a Prince vocal ejaculation, his squeals, yelps, gasps and moans, can finally enjoy them in their full glory. It’s like listening to a remix not just a remaster. The B sides and extended versions associated with Sign “☮︎” the Times are amongst Prince’s very best. How Shockadelica failed to make the cut is anyone’s guess. The Long Look version of U Got The Look is even more raunchy and breathless and the seven minute MoQuake of Housequake is guaranteed to put your dancefloor under strain.
There are a grand total of forty-five previously unreleased tracks across three CDs/ six LPs, presented in chronological order. Bear in mind that these are the leftovers having creamed off the best eighteen for the parent album and its B sides and a further fifteen released later during Prince’s lifetime. To begin with, the band capture the innocent sound of a childhood, full of jangly, psychedelic pop with lots of Wendy and Lisa, as if Prince hadn’t quite worked Around The World In A Day out of his system. An early Strange Relationship features a sitar, The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker a full horn section, Nevaeh Ni Ecalp a backward vocal and Teacher Teacher a harpsichord. Love + Sex borrows the riff from Moonage Daydream. Songs like It’s A Wonderful Day, Big Tall Wall and In A Large Room With No Light are whimsical and weightless. Miles Davis paid a visit to the studio, making a tasteful rather than earth-shattering contribution to Can I Play With U?, introducing a number of forays into Jazz Funk, The Revolution sounding remarkably like the future New Power Generation of the nineties. The phat bass version of Witness 4 The Prosecution and That Says What could be outtakes from 1992’s The Love Symbol Album. There are some fascinating, brief musical doodles, a lovely piano only Visions, a solo guitar Colors and two attempts of Place In Heaven with different singers. Prince’s instruction to the band prior to a run through of Power Fantastic (“There are no mistakes this time. This is the fun track”) is delivered in a hushed passive-aggressive tone, eerily reminiscent of Michael Jackson. There’s a tribute to Where’s Wally, a reggae number, an unexpected foray into evangelism, Blanche and Stanley dance to an insatiably funky guitar and the Old Testament meets Greek Mythology in an all-night tryst, represented by Adonis And Bathsheba. The Camille project brought an edge and a much-needed freakiness. Prince had experimented with a pitched-up female voice as far back as Erotic City in 1984. Camille allowed his imagination to run riot, even into the darkest corners of his soul. She’s funky, she’s squelchy, she’s tight and she’s pretty much Prince alone. Rebirth Of The Flesh is here along side a 7″ version of Crystal Ball, but there are a few tracks, such as Jealous Girl, wherein a vengeful Camille cuts her love rival’s face, that were probably better off left in the can. By December 1986, Crystal Ball was taking shape by scattering Camille and Dream Factory tracks amongst newer, meatier numbers like The Cross or I Need A Man. It was a short step thereafter to the final album.
The live concert is from Ultracht, June 1987. Prince appropriated most of Sheila E’s band to join the rump of The Revolution. The sound is light on synthesisers and heavy on guitar and drums, rocking up many of the dancier numbers. It’s an exciting show but, then, it was an exciting European tour. The tickets implored attendees to wear peach and most complied. If I Was Your Girlfriend is especially gripping, losing its wide-eyed inquisitiveness to become a dystopian Freudian nightmare. The real joy is an extended encore, Forever In My Life, transformed into a soulful gospel-fest by outstanding vocals from Boni Boyer. Prince always employed top-class female vocalists but was careful to make sure any male backing could not compete. Alongside the early vocal take in the Vault section, Forever In My Life is the show-case song of the box. The DVD is not the film of Sign “☮︎” the Times released to movie theatres in October but a benefit show at Paisley Park recorded on 31st December 1987, the main draw being an onstage appearance by Miles Davis.
This is a huge limited edition eight CD + DVD or thirteen LP + DVD box that could have been bigger. An extra CD or 2 LPs could have housed those tracks recorded around this time but released later. However, Sign “☮︎” the Times is an album that can carry such a large product. Every disc is full of gems, including the concert recording. Each listen unearths another of Prince’s little secrets. The box also demonstrates Prince’s good judgement. He was quite right, The Revolution was beginning to feel tired. When pushed by his record company, he edited the seventy songs he had available into the finest double album he could. He made all the best choices. Even sandwiching the live thrill of It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night between the rapture of The Cross and the ecstasy of Adore makes perfect sense. His record company was right too. Now that we can all reconstruct those three albums ourselves, we discover that Dream Factory is overhyped by Wendy & Lisa, the Camille LP jaw-dropping but unlikely to have sold well and Crystal Ball simply too long and erratic. Sign “☮︎” the Times trumps them all.
Sign “☮︎” the Times teems with life, displaying one man’s dazzling array of talents as a composer, musician, arranger and singer to a breathtaking degree. It allowed Prince to stride across the Rock landscape as a colossus. Critics spoke of it in awe, likening it to Exile On Main Street, The White Album and Blonde On Blonde. In truth, only Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland can compare. This box is a physical product par excellence, a thing of beauty, the mother lode for Prince fans. The top end of the range is where the investment will reap dividends both in listening pleasure and in financial value over time. The smart money will be on the peach vinyl double LP. The casual observer will be more than content with the remastered two disc edition of one of Rock’s greatest albums.
What does it all *mean*?
The keepers of Prince’s vault have delivered his finest box set yet. It’s unlikely they will ever better it.
Goes well with…
A nice sturdy shelf to display it on.
Might suit people who like…
Prince Rogers Nelson.