Review Summary: Prince cemented his domination of the 80s by dropping the Revolution and writing the most inspired lyrics of his career, resulting in his magnum opus.
While Michael Jackson was dubbed the King of Pop, nobody made records as brilliant yet chart-courting during the 80s quite like Prince. From the gloriously filthy record Dirty Mind
to the first bits of serious experimentation in 1999
to the mega hit Purple Rain
, Prince established himself as an artist whose eclectic appearance was matched by his music. After the underperforming film Under a Cherry Moon
(which at least gave us the excellent album Parade
), Prince split with the Revolution and went back to his old multi-instrumentalist ways. He also took the time to work on his lyrics, and the result exceeds even the masterpiece Purple Rain
From the start you can tell that Prince stepped up his game. The title track begins with a simple drum machine beat and a funky bassline before Prince delivers the lines “In France a skinny man/Died of a big disease with a little name/By chance his girlfriend/came across a needle/And soon she did the same
” And that’s not even all of the first verse. The song tackles AIDS, natural disasters, drugs, the Challenger explosion, and just a general feeling of impending doom. Of course, as with any non-conceptual double album, the songs are all over the place musically and lyrically, so don’t get too used to this new socially aware tone.
While the album deals with a great deal of Prince’s mounting fear of the world around him, there are a number of good old pop songs. "Housequake" is a downright party funk tune, while "It" shows Prince hasn’t lost that marvelous innuendo of his. "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" shows off the guitar histrionics that defined tracks like “Purple Rain” and “When Doves Cry” and has such a lightweight yet still rocking feel that it wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.
. If you find yourself missing the feel of Prince with a band, never fear, "It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" is a live track featuring the Revolution before Prince parted ways with them. While the rest of the album has a very electronic feel, this is good old R&B/funk rave-up complete with deft crowd manipulation from the little genius.
Near the end of the album, the darker tone of the opener seeps back in, starting with "Strange Relationship", which chronicles a dysfunctional relationship and how the couple struggles with wanting to leave and lingering memories of better times. "The Cross" presages the more religious themes of albums like The Rainbow Children
. Here, Prince talks about how the dark times “will be taken by the cross.” While it might put off people who don’t want to be preached to, it is a starkly beautiful song that builds into a riffy and emotional plea and it’s one of the highlights on this perfect album. Things take a turn for the better at the end with "Adore", a tender love song with Prince’s best vocal performance.
Effortlessly shifting between lustful dance tunes and dark musings and running the gamut of musical genres, Sign ‘O’ The Times
shows the breadth of Prince’s talents and it’s the best argument to support the claim that he is a genius. It's the perfect mix of the one-man-band electronic funk of his early days and the raw emotion and soul of his recordings with the Revolution. It’s one of the precious few double albums that benefits from its haphazard, toss-in-everything-that-didn’t-make-other-albums nature. In short, it’s the Exile on Main St.
of funk, a disjointed watershed that was never bettered. Purple Rain
might have the hits, but anyone who wants to hear intelligent yet still fun pop music desperately needs this album. If this record was borne out of Prince’s fear of an approaching apocalypse, the end of days never sounded so danceable.