Entertainment Music

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Reigning supreme after three decades

Prince album Sign o' the Times is 30 years old this weekend. Our music critic on a sprawling, ambitious masterpiece
Going it alone: Prince made Sign o' the Times with virtually no outside help
Going it alone: Prince made Sign o' the Times with virtually no outside help
John Meagher

John Meagher

Prince Rogers Nelson was just 28 when he released the astonishing Sign o' the Times on the final day of March 1987, but even at such a tender age, he was something of a music-industry veteran. He had already brought out no less than eight albums, including one of the decade's most emblematic in 1984's Purple Rain, and there seemed to be no stopping this creative giant in a diminutive man's body.

But even his fans sensed that Sign o' the Times was something different, an epic, vaultingly ambitious and genre-hopping work that would cement Prince's status as one of the most thrilling pop visionaries of the late 20th Century.

Thirty years on and it's the yardstick by which all the albums from this late maverick should be judged. And even those who feel that double albums typically represent bloated hubris, too much money and way too much time might want to reappraise because there's little here that doesn't connect in some way.

The Prince who started recording sessions in the autumn of 1986 was at a crossroads. He had disbanded his backing band, The Revolution, and toyed with the idea of recording an album about his alter ego, Camille.

In the end, the album that emerged was the nearest to a solo release since his 1980 breakthrough Dirty Mind. It may sound like a maximalist album (but one whose production was clean and minimalist) that utilised a panoply of crack session musicians, but in fact Prince played virtually every instrument himself.

And of the 16 tracks, all but three are written exclusively by Prince. In a searching retrospective review, Pitchfork noted that "outside musical accompaniment is slight. In a sense, Prince's major musical collaborator at this point was his engineer Susan Rogers, who recorded him at different studios in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and even Paris".

It's a sign of the supreme self-confidence he possessed at the time that Prince was able to make an album as inventive, eccentric and downright brilliant with virtually no outside help.

The title track, which opens the album, was the first taster when it was released in February 1987 and it probably threw those who may have seen Prince as someone who wrote escapist, gender-bending, funked-up fantasy pop music. 'Sign o' the Times' is a politicised commentary on mid-1980s US, a country where the gap between the super-rich and the desperately poor was forever widening, where injustice was becoming a hallmark of Ronald Reagan's presidency, where drugs and gang warfare had torn the heart out of so many cities and the spectre of Aids ("a big disease with a little name") - discovered just five years earlier - was stalking the land.

It has often been noted that the title track and a handful of other songs on Sign o' the Times amounted to Prince's answer to the gritty storytelling characterised by rap - Michael Jackson would try something similar with Bad later in 1987 - but while he was certainly aware of hip-hop's rise, the album was the work of a man who was acutely aware of what made him special and he played to those strengths.

As with so many classic Prince albums, there's a fixation with both sexuality and religious salvation. Sometimes the two appear to lie together, as on 'Forever in my Life'; on other occasions they're clearly demarked: 'It' is a lascivious anthem to carnality while the slower, soulful 'Adore' is an urban hymn, 1980s-style.

Both tracks sound fantastic, not least because of Prince's chameleon-like ability to inhabit different styles and because his voice was such a wonderfully adaptable instrument.

Third single 'U Got the Look' was a global hit - and no surprise as it embodies Prince's funky strut - but several of the album tracks could have been similarly big. It's surprising that he never saw fit to release 'Housequake', a gloriously sophisticated dancefloor number that doffed its hat to old-school R&B, or 'Hot Thing', a supremely sexualised number in which Prince wonders "What's your fantasy/ Do you want to play with me?"

It's true that Sign o' the Times does not make for the easiest listen - there's so much going on and Prince chops and changes with such abandon that the casual listener might well feel as though the door is constantly being bolted shut. But there's no other album in the man's prolific canon that rewards as much to those willing to let the music wash over them.

The album has been subjected to substantial critical analysis over the years, but one of the best is courtesy of Rolling Stone regular Michaelangelo Matos. It was he who wrote about Sign o' the Times in Bloomsbury's award-winning '33 1/3' series of books about classic albums and his account of its influence and legacy is offset by his own response to the record as a young man growing up in Prince's hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On the occasion of his death last April, Matos noted that the album was "a guided tour through pop history that only one person could have made" but it came at quite a cost.

"Staying ahead of his audience wound up costing him much of that audience, at least in America, as the 1980s went on," Matos wrote. "While the Lovesexy tour of Europe in 1988 sold out sports stadiums - including four consecutive nights in Paris with little advance notice - it failed to incite as much interest in the US, where he played to half-full halls."

Lovesexy was a decidedly poor follow-up, although, as anyone with even a passing interest in Prince will know, Sign o' the Times' true successor is what's now known as 'The Black Album'. Scrapped by Prince just before it was to be released, it existed in bootleg form for years before finally getting an official release in 1994. It's a thrilling and maddening album that marked the end of its creator's breathtaking critical run.

Much of what he released towards the end of his life was of poor quality and little hinted at the riches he scattered around in the 1980s, but the best way to remember Prince is to roll back the clock three decades and admire the work of a man at the peak of his powers.

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