Influential Albums – Sign O’ The Times by Prince

Prince - Sign O The TimesIn 1984, Purple Rain was a huge hit album and “When Doves Cry” was all over the radio constantly.  And I hated it.  My brother and I used to make fun of the lyrics all the time. After that, we had only a passing knowledge of Around the World in a Day and Parade when they came out.

Then came 1987 and the release of Sign O’ The Times.  When the title track hit radio, it was unlike anything I’d heard. Dry, sparse, depressing as hell.  And it began to change my mind about Captain Purple Pants.  I must have asked for it, because that Christmas I received the double album on vinyl as a gift.  And I still have it.

We threw disc 1 on the turntable and… mind blown.  It was so ecclectic.  At times it had something deep to say.   At other times, it wanted nothing but a good party.

Just like any lengthy Prince release, some of it is amazing and some of it is stuff that can’t stand up to his own genius.  If you’ve ever sat through the entire 3 discs of Crystal Ball, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Sign O’ The Times – The title track was what got me hooked.  I was a white kid in the suburbs and these stories of drug use and poverty were an unknown world to me.  I couldn’t identify, by it was like looking at a strange picture.  And the bass and guitar lines were to die for.  So simple and effective.

Play In The Sunshine – This song immediately flipped the whole vibe on its head.  Gone was the depression and in came the fun.  It makes you want to listen to the rest of the album just to see what will happen next.

Housequake – How can you not love this groove?  Once again he used really sparse textures, but created a totally different environment with it.  And it also held echoes of the James Brown stuff I’d grown up with under my parents’ tutelage.  And of course, he says “Bullshit!” in it.  Songs with profanity! What an invention!

The Ballad of Dorothy Parker – I didn’t understand this song at all as a kid.  I knew it was adult and dealt with adult things.  This was a song I had to grow into.

It – This is probably my least favorite song on the album.  A typical sex song, which Prince has done better on other pieces.  Come on, you can’t beat “Darling Nikki”.  The arrangement just has never really done much for me.  It doesn’t go anywhere.

Starfish and Coffee – This makes up for “It”.  It’s simple and adorable and makes no sense.  The absurdity of the lyrics reminds me of Monty Python for some reason.  As a songwriter I’ve learned that there’s magic in a simple chord progression and a lyric that’s just tricky enough to take some learning to sing along to.

Slow Love – Here’s one of the songs that I would skip in my younger days.  It’s a pretty straight up R&B love song.  But once I got into writing, it started to grow on me as I tried to duplicate these sounds.  The horn lines are definitely my favorite part.

Hot Thing – A great keyboard line and the type of song a teenage boy loves.  Though at the time “hot thing, barely 21” was still an older woman for me.

Forever In My Life – I always liked singing along with “la da da da, da da da da”, and the whole “man’s journey” is always an interesting path in a song.  This one took the “sparse” a little too far for my taste.

U Got The Look – Disc 2 starts with a bang.  Hitting right in MTv’s heyday, this thing was huge.  Prince and Sheena Easton rocking the stage in the video.  This was another song where you had to do a little work to learn all the words and sing along.  This took the jagged instrumental chunks that he used as a sonic palate for the for the album and hit just the right mix to make it really accessible.

If I Was Your Girlfriend – The mixture of smooth R&B and the tension filled lyric is a great mix.  And the pitch shifted vocal was just a weird addition that held my ear for multiple listens.

Strange Relationship – Here, Prince gets a little more mainstream accessible again.  It’s got a very typical pop song structure which either makes it blah or a fantastic lesson in songwriting.  Definitely the latter for me.

I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man – This is my absolute favorite song on the album.  He paints a great picture and the imagery just pulls you right in.  My only problem with the song was that I thought it was too upbeat for what the lyric talked about.  Catchy as could be and the opening hook is great.  But I never felt it truly matched the lyric.  Years later I recorded my own version of the song in a more downtempo, acoustic environment.  To this day it’s one of my best selling songs.  You can hear it below.

The Cross – Over the years, as I’ve become less and less enamored of religion, this song and I have grown apart.  But you can’t deny the passion behind the vocal and the mastery of the arrangement.

It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night – This song is just straight up fun.  It was recorded live, which had to be a great draw for ticket sales.  The horns and arrangement are top top notch.  And the “Volga Boatmen” vocal riff makes no sense, but it’s fun to sing along with.  And that’s the point.

Adore – This was another song I had to grow into.  R&B ballads just didn’t excite me when I first got the album.  But a good slow jam isn’t about the lyrics (as they’re usually insipid), or the arrangement (because it’s just a beat and keyboard pads).  It’s about the rhythmic pull of the vocals against the instruments.  If you can hit on a good melody that people can sing along with and really working the rhythmic push and pull of the lyrics… magic, baby.  As far as song order, I would have flipped this with “Beautiful Night” to end the album on a high note.  Apparently, Prince figured the album should end with baby making instead of dancing. 🙂

Strangely, I kind of lost track of Prince after this album.  I was aware of his work on the Batman soundtrack because you couldn’t avoid “Batdance” on MTv.

But then I happened across a copy of “Chaos and Disorder” in a bargain bin somewhere in the late 90’s and picked it up on a whim.  Though it’s usually rated as one of his least liked albums, I heard the rock and the funk and the lyrics and it brought it all back for me.  After that, I picked up every Prince album I could get my hands on.  And my education in groove began. 🙂

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