Sign O’ The Times: Prince’s restless masterpiece

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1986 was a challenging year for Prince, with some anticipations of what was going to happen soon. Parade confirmed the great moment for the Minneapolis genius (among many delights, there was also Kiss), Under The Cherry Moon was a disaster of epic proportions, unable to repeat Purple Rain‘s lucky receipt and partially cracking Prince’s ambitions as actor and director (Graffiti Bridge will add the final point).

The flop of his second film didn’t stop Prince’s creative verve. He was immediately back to his furious creative processes, with the clear intentions to get a revenge in the field where he was best: music. Together with The Revolution band, he recorded material for two albums, titled Dream Factory and Camille, which, because of his usual artistic bulimia, never saw the light, being converted into another project called Crystal Ball.

This included many of the pieces of the two aborted albums and was supposed to be a triple album, which was promptly rejected by Warner Bros, not conviced about such a verbose work and less confident in Prince potential after Under the Cherry Moon. For the first time a record label refused an album to Prince, and he didn’t take it well. But this wasn’t his only problem: at the end of the Parade tour he broke up The Revolution, especially for the misunderstandings with Wendy & Lisa, closing a lucky artistic partnership with which he dominated the charts.

Prince, 1986

In short, despite years in continuous ascent, 1987 wasn’t looking good for His Royal Badness. But his proverbial rentlessness was still there, and there wasn’t sign yet of those self-destructive tendencies that would come up some years later. After assembling a new group (which however will be used only in the recording, for an album that was pretty much a Prince solo work) and reworking many of the songs previously recorded, he presents SIgn O’ The Times to his label.

Warner bosses were still not totally fine with it (it was still a double album, an evergreen fear of all record labels), but in the end they had to surrender and approve the release, which was published on March 31st, 1987. Sign O’ The Times could have been a simple routine for Prince, who no longer had anything to ask to his career: it’s one of the musical symbols of those years, he sells like few others can, he fills arenas with no effort, he is respected in the scene and he was already considered a genius. Probably an unrepeatable one. But when it’s time to rebuild his path, he wanted to transform it in a point of arrival, synthesizing the characteristics of his music and his well know duality: the sins of the flesh and the spirituality.

Prince - Sign O' The Times (Official Music Video)

The titletrack is a crude compendium of human misfortunes and a masterpiece of minimalism in drum machine sauce. The inability of men to learn something from their mistakes (“Is it silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly”) and the extreme fragility in front of life challenges like death, drugs and AIDS (“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), can partially be balanced by love, which remains the only salvation (“Sign o’ the times mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late. Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby, we’ll call him Nate if it’s a boy”).

Play In The Sunshine inaugurates a rockabilly party, which continues with the unleashed funky energy of Housequake. The delicate psychedelic story of The Ballad of Dorothy Parker gives a little break, but it’s just a moment, then it’s again aggressive with It. The sweet samba of Starfish & Coffee introduces us to the school memories of the young Prince, and then we end up in Slow Love and Adore (that, according to the legend, was recorded together with Miles Davis) and the absolute levels of his falsetto.

With Hot Thing Prince shows his muscles, while in Forever in My Life he proves more softness to his woman (at the time it was Wendy Melvoin’s twin sister Susannah), described as a stable support, the way for salvation (“You are my savior/You are my life”). U Got The Look is a pop jewel and I Was Your Girlfriend one of the highest points reached by Prince pen, describing the inversion of the male/female roles and the contradictions in love relationships; Strange Relationship, apparently solar and cheerful, talks about couple misunderstandings.

In I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man he tells us about the disappointments of life, in The Cross he starts with the acoustic guitar and his spiritual mood and then unleashes his hard rock spirit, in It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night he reminds us how awesome his funk ravings were live: Sign O’ The Times marked the most complete offer Prince could give us. Although it didn’t reach Purple Rain’s sales (not even close, those number would never be repeated), it’s always considered his true masterpiece and one of the best products of the 80s, often described as a route incident in the history of music. In the midst of that incident there was, however, an authentic monster, endowed with an enormous and multiform talent: a man full of contradictions, anarchist and despotic, poetic and egocentric, torrential and impossible to box in genres and labels. Exactly like his chaotic masterpiece.

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