I hope you don’t mind if I start with an extended quote but I have tried to write a review of this LP three times now and I’m having problems getting it airborne. A very wise man once said,
Before he seemingly mislaid his knack of writing a good tune (1993) I was quite a Prince fan, buying a shed load of singles and loving Parade and Sign “☮” the Times. Without invoking the sacred names of Lennon and McCartney I still can’t think of anyone who was capable of mashing together so many different types of music to such great effect whilst creating something utterly and indelibly his own and playing most of it brilliantly himself AND being so prolific, Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade, Sign “☮” the Times all knocked out in 36 months, which just beggars belief; definition of the phrase ‘a purple period’? The word genius gets thrown around far too much in popular music but when he was in his pomp Prince pretty much qualified for the title.
Prince Sign “☮” the Times is to my mind the fullest flowering of said genius, but if you’ve ever looked at any critics’ polls then you’ll know that already – you know the drill, 10 Best Albums of the 80’s, 500 Best LP’s Ever, Prince’s Top 5 LPs between 1984-7, 1001 Records You Must Hear Shortly Before I kill You. Now being a bit of a iconoclastic dude there are plenty such albums that I see on these lists that I see the historical relevance of but that don’t twist my jazzicles none*. This does.
I bought the singles the week they came out, mostly, but it took me until 1994 to buy a bit of a ropey copy of Sign “☮” the Times from Leeds market, it’s a bit frayed and shabby but I’ve never updated it because it’s what I have always associated with this beast. The most impressive thing about this LP to me isn’t the sheer range of genres and conceits Prince weaves together here, it is just the fact that he makes such a cohesive whole out of all the disparate elements. Especially when you realise** that this LP was the salvaged pieces of a triple LP release that Warner Bros baulked at releasing, the result being far more focused and refined by far*^.
If you’ll excuse me gushing I’ll let you in on my favourite bits and I won’t even mention the title track despite the fact that it is one of my favourite songs to come out of that decade. ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ on the other hand is one of my favourite songs ever; this is the reason we evolved ears. I love the upbeat-beat, the tune is perfect pop as far as I am concerned and above all else the sentiment behind it all, Prince shelves his squelchy little bird dog persona for once and tells his prospective lady friend that he isn’t good enough for her, she wants and needs more than he’s capable of delivering^. Oh and the opening gets me every time,
It was only last June when her old man ran away
She couldn’t stop crying cause she knew he was gone to stay
10:35 on a lonely Friday night
She was standing by the bar and ooh she was looking alright
The raw and surprisingly heartfelt ‘The Cross’ also twists me, featuring some great guitar playing that always makes me wish he’d played it a lot louder a lot more often. Prince’s vocals on this track are also just perfect, he means every syllable and that bit where the drum starts in … sorry, I’m gushing again aren’t I? this track is a pretty unique one in his canon^^ because there’s no persona, or distance, just him and us. It’s a close cousin of the title track and if I’d been sequencing Sign “☮” the Times would have been the closing track.
If there is a unifying factor here it is Prince’s pop sensibility, it is what links the quasi-psychedelic ditty of ‘Starfish & Coffee’, to the extended funk workout of ‘It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night’, to the unabashed smarts of ‘U Got The Look’^*, to the drum-machine electroisms of ‘Housequake’, to … you get the picture. No matter what styles he pulls out of his purple drawers Prince makes sure it’ll hook us, but good.
When Prince studied biology in school and they learned about the 8 life functions of living organisms, my betting is that he decided that all that respiration and excretion nonsense was for lesser beings and he’d just concentrate on the reproduction one. As always, sex is a constant throughout Sign “☮” the Times, whether viewed through the prism of some soul crooning on the instructional ‘Slow Love’, the high-pitched filth of ‘Adore’ (‘I ain’t fuckin’ just 4 kicks’ – why not, Prince, why not?), the consequences it has according to the title track and best of all the sheer unadulterated oddness of ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’. I love the latter where he fantasies about being the object of his affections’ best friend so he could help her chose her clothes, hang out like girls do together, tickle her just like girls do (all the time, apparently) and generally persuade her to indulge in a bout of mutual fiddling about. It’s a great insight into his slightly odd libido and I love the way the music changes and goes wonky mid-song almost as if to acknowledge the fact that his desires are getting loopier and loopier. I never mind prince singing about, you know, downstairs stuff because with a couple of minor lapses he tends to keep it all within the bounds of (in)decency and not tumble into the abyss of crudeness – mind you I’m not sure I’d have left him alone with one of our pets if he was too worked up!
I don’t love it all unreservedly, you could cull a couple of tracks here and not miss them appreciably, ‘Hot Thing’ is too much of its’ decade to interest me hugely and lacks that bit of glitter, ditto ‘It’; but what the hell do I know? Just dip your hand into this bag of sweets and aural treats and munch away; Prince never put so many great tastes into one bag again – most people have perfectly good careers without writing half the tunes he did here. Like Cynthia in ‘Starfish And Coffee’, in 1987 Prince was here to show us something far beyond the normal and to spread a little love and colour around the world,
If U set your mind free, baby
Maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
*I’m looking at you Pet Sounds, Daydream Nation and big chunks of What’s Going On.
**as I did tonight, well-informed walking musicopedia that I am.
*^shame Geffen weren’t listening 4 years later when Axl had a funny little idea.
^whilst being quite sure to remind everyone he’s perfectly ‘qualified for a one night stand’.
^^as far as I’m aware, I gave up on him after the symbol album which I thought was a pretty decent LP.
^*so good I even liked the Roxette rip off ‘The Look’.