Of all the double albums you could possibly resequence to eliminate filler or sharpen thematic focus, none is at first blush less ripe for pruning and rearrangement than Sign ‘O’ the Times.
Of all the double albums you could possibly resequence to eliminate filler or sharpen thematic focus, none is at first blush less ripe for pruning and rearrangement than Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times. Compared to most double-LPs, vault-clearing exercises that ignore the process of separating the wheat from the chaff, Prince’s first release after the dissolution of the Revolution is a rare case of rigorous, culling literally dozens of tracks recorded between 1986 and 1987 into a series of prospective multi-LP releases shot down by an oversaturation-fearing Warner Bros until finally agreeing to the album that exists today. In the endless pruning, resequencing and new songwriting, Prince wound up with a sprawling document that nonetheless showed great restraint and focus.
Still, the sheer abundance of riches leaves open almost endless possibilities of different albums culled from Prince’s most feverishly creative year. This resequence may be the only one to argue the need to make things even weirder and more incongruous than the official release, with some of SOTT’s most pleasingly but straightforward tracks swapped for those that demonstrate the full breadth of Prince’s astonishing range during this period. Like the real thing, this sequencing runs 16 tracks, with each added track replacing another. Furthermore, each LP has been arranged to somewhat follow the arc of Prince’s 1986-87 tumult, from breakdowns of professional and personal relationships to his subsequent frenzy of solo rebirth. Running 85 minutes in full, this version stays just within acceptable lengths to avoid excess compression on the prospective vinyl.
1. Sign ‘O’ the Times
3. Strange Relationship (Revolution version)
4. Crystal Ball
5. Play in the Sunshine
6. Witness 4 the Prosecution
7. It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night
8. Rebirth of the Flesh
9. The Ballad of Dorothy Parker
10. Starfish & Coffee
11. Hot Thing
12. The Cross
14. Sexual Suicide
15. If I Was Your Girlfriend
Added tracks: “Rebirth of the Flesh”, “Witness 4 the Prosecution”, “Crystal Ball”, “Shockadelica”, “Sexual Suicide”, “Strange Relationship” (Revolution version)
Omitted tracks: “Slow Love”, “Forever in My Life”, “U Got the Look”, “It”, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”, “Strange Relationship” (album version)
1. “Sign ‘O’ the Times”
Funnily enough, in all of the album permutations that Prince weighed before reconfiguring his material into SOTT, the album’s title track was actually situated near the middle. It makes a kind of sense if listening to fan-made Dream Factory or Crystal Ball bootlegs, but the nervy, hollowed stomp just works so well at the top that it’s impossible not to think of it as a lead-off track. The crashing bassline levels buildings around Prince’s dispassionate catalog of social ills. Prince’s apocalyptic tracks to date resolved to the bliss of ignorance, choosing to use the glow of atom bombs to light dancefloors. But here, his numbed horror undercuts the funk with a sense of dejection that likely applied as much to his increasingly bitter feelings toward his Revolution bandmates as his anxiety about the Reagan era.
“Housequake” is the sort of track that you almost cannot describe but that Prince at his peak could churn out in his sleep. At once stripped-down and overwhelming, the track rides a stuttering electronic drum beat that sounds like early Human League backing Parliament as Prince crafts a start-stop dance instruction song right out of the James Brown playbook. Its incongruity only makes its baffling cohesion all the more thrilling, and you can hear even in Prince’s one-man band version how primed it is for the brassy, jazzy freak-out it became on subsequent tours.
3. “Strange Relationship” (Revolution version)
There is not a significant difference between the Revolution’s Dream Factory demo for “Strange Relationship” and the re-recorded solo outing that made wax, but there is nonetheless enough group input to make this weird, emotional paean that much odder. This version opens with grinding, murky keys from Lisa, who also provides backing vocals to the choruses. The full-band version likewise draws out even more of the song’s buried tension, involving Wendy Melvoin’s contributions in Prince’s vague allusions to the breakdown of his romantic relationship with her twin, Susannah.
4. “Crystal Ball”
The greatest tragedy of Warner’s refusal to entertain either Prince’s Dream Factory/Camille or Crystal Ball releases was the loss of this mammoth funk epic, a track that, had it been released, could have been the finest work of overwhelming yet accessible prog-pop since “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Starting with the slow throb of a kick drum, the track slowly accumulates all of the strange elements that the Revolution had absorbed over their stylistically varied albums; even the steel drums from “New Position” return in warped fashion. Eventually, the track explodes in a cavalcade of horns, percussion and the most angular slap-bass solo ever recorded, all hypnotically underpinning Prince’s almost prophetic vision of love.
5. “Play in the Sunshine”
Side two kicks off with the jubilant counterpoint to the title track, here moved out for a refreshing burst after the dizzying journey of “Crystal Ball.” It’s just pure, straight-ahead rock, unhinged but tightly focused in both its guitar and drum solos, both punchy and skillful but not remotely indulgent. Somehow, even this makes room for oddity, pulling in some of the brighter, faux-mallet percussion synths that crop up elsewhere for some vague notion of sunny island music.
6. “Witness 4 the Prosecution”
Prince’s best bassline this side of “Let’s Work” is shoved so far into the red that it steamrolls this pure funk banger, lurching and roaring over wah-wah guitar fills, horns and Wendy and Lisa’s belted backing vocals. Prince spent most of the Revolution days shunting his most old-school funk numbers to proxies like The Time to prioritize crossover pop under his own aegis, but this track provides a compelling glimpse into a world in which the Revolution were the best ass-shaking band of the ’80s.
7. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”
The first LP comes to a close with, fittingly, the jam culled from the Revolution’s final performance. More sedate than the versions of this track that Prince would unleash on the SOTT tour with his new, funk-oriented backing group, the jam inadvertently epitomizes the contrast of ecstatic music and ironic mood that the group handled so well in its time together. Somewhat awkwardly placed on the original album, here it thematically brings one phase of Prince’s life to an end, setting the stage for the next period of his career.
8. “Rebirth of the Flesh”
What better way to leave the Revolution behind than with the intended opening track of Prince’s solo, disguised LP Camille? Lurching out of the gate with a post-orgasmic shudder of a riff, the track sways and fist-pumps with the dizzying possibility of freedom. Camille was predicated upon pitch-shifting Prince’s vocals into an airy, androgynous register, but on “Rebirth” he sings with such power and authority that he tramples his own knob-fiddling chicanery. Prince wanted to release the aborted album without his name attached, but no one on Earth could have mistaken its maker within the first few seconds of this mission statement.
9. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
On an album revered for its weirdness, perhaps no track is more out-there than “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Prince was an incredible lyricist in the Lennon-McCartney vein, a master of writing strange but fundamentally universal earworms, but a storyteller he typically wasn’t. This is one of the great exceptions to that rule, recounting an interaction with a witty waitress that mixes concrete, speech-song Beat detail and pure, oneiric intangibility. Recorded on a faulty mixing deck, the track is swathed in murk and fog that actually gives the song greater shape, highlighting Prince’s laidback delivery of a remembered dream. In the most quintessentially Princian fashion, he purportedly didn’t even know that Dorothy Parker was a real person and merely dreamed his own version into existence.
10. “Starfish and Coffee”
The flipside to “Dorothy Parker’s” dreamy abstraction, “Starfish and Coffee” is like the Platonic ideal of Ringo’s songwriting contributions to the Beatles. Aqueous and glinting like sunlight trickling down into a coral reef. Having only just gotten into some strange kind of dream-noir conversation with a diner waitress, here Prince places his actual order, and the sublime nonsense of it all marks a more holistic, thematically pure invocation of the psychedelic era than anything on Around the World in a Day.
11. “Hot Thing”
What do you get when you cross a Bernie Worrell-worthy keyboard bass-clef riff with Prince at his most filthily libidinous? A no-nonsense jam that bursts into every dirty thoughts playlist you’ve ever conceived like the Kool-Aid Man crashing through a wall. Not as decadent as, say, “Darling Nikki,” “Hot Thing” nonetheless dispenses with pleasantries as it lopes behind the object of Prince’s affections, the world narrowing to a pinpoint tunnel as the artist starts looking out of the eye in his pants. His tomcat shrieks only add to the pure animalistic delight.
12. “The Cross”
Whiplashing from Prince at his most lascivious to the artist at his most pious, “The Cross” brings the mood down for a moment of repentance and confession, though as ever there are complicating factors. The warbling, quasi-Middle Eastern bent of the sinewy guitar riff feels less like gospel than Christian roots music taken literally, thrown all the way back to Palestine and Galilee, and Prince’s multi-tracked vocals make a one-man Gregorian chorus as his guitar rises ever higher toward the ethereal plane in one of his most elegant solos.
If SOTT has any one issue it is in the relative paucity of pure guitar pyrotechnics that make up such a crucial element of Prince’s bag of tricks. Rectifying that is this Camille track eventually released as a B-side, one of Prince’s finest interpretations of the Eddie Hazel sound in sheets of squalling feedback that rupture out of the woozy funk of the backing arrangement. As the kick-off to the final side, “Shockadelica” sends the album into its endgame with a scream.
14. “Sexual Suicide”
“It” is a killer funk track that wastes no space getting right down to the grind, but its jubilant, sunny bounce feels somewhat standard in relation to some of the truly out-there funk that Prince was crafting around this time. For a better glimpse into this art-bop material, look no further than “Sexual Suicide,” which leaps out of the gate with a watery synth line that gurgles between a molasses-thick bassline and horn fills. Anticipating the free-funk busyness that Prince would craft with the New Power Generation, the track manages to shape its elements like the planets aligning in astrological improbability, the cacophony abruptly focusing up into a slamming number that drags in a fair helping of Prince’s Dirty Mind–1999 cyber filth amid its more organic big-band jubilance.
15. “If I Was Your Girlfriend”
The sleeper candidate for Prince’s all-time best song, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” could be seen as his take on spiritual sister Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” Similarly predicated on swapping genders to better understand the other, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is platonically affectionate right up until the moment that, of course, it isn’t, as Prince suddenly shifts from wanting to better understand his lovers’ emotions to more thoroughly getting a sense of their physical sensations. The shift from buoyant, sincere empathy to pure carnal curiosity occurs so subtly that it’s hard to spot the exact moment of the pivot after dozens of listens. Gently guided by drums and bass, the track is Prince’s most graceful display of desire.
Just as Prince picked the unassailably perfect album opener, so too is his choice for the final track too adroitly chosen to move. You could argue for the equally beautiful closer of Dream Factory, “All My Dreams,” for inclusion, but “Adore,” boasting one of Prince’s most divine vocal performances, made the official album for a reason. The greatest sock-hop slow dance song never released in the ’50s, “Adore” fuses doo-wop cadences with shimmering, brassy soul as Prince’s falsetto keeps climbing to new peaks every time you think it’s plateaued. Its eventual slide into competing vocal lines overflows with agony and ecstasy, closing the album with sublime cacophony.
“U Got the Look”
It’s admittedly strange to remove SOTT‘s lead single from the record, and there’s no denying that “U Got the Look” is a killer track. Compared to the countless tracks that Prince could write on a dime when he found himself in need of a hook, though, the track has always worn its tossed-off nature on its sleeve, and it never quite fit into even the loose vibe of the album. Better relegated to a non-album single, the track still belongs on any Prince playlist.
As alluded to earlier, “It” is a perfectly good funk song that never rises to a higher level. Musically and lyrically, it’s a standard on-the-one beat with simplistic carnal lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with either, and the track is well-placed on the original LP, but it lacks the same spark that a number of non-album tracks contain.
“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”
A true tale of two songs, the first two-thirds of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is one of SOTT‘s most thrilling tracks, anchored by Prince’s most joyous, propulsive riff since “Let’s Go Crazy” and climaxing with a guitar solo of Frippian, laserlike focus that is delirious from ecstasy as it climbs ever higher. Then, an inexplicable collapse into murky, plodding nothingness, like all the bad parts of a Led Zeppelin jam, grind the track to a halt. It recovers in the final seconds, but that extended trudge has always held back what otherwise would stand as one of Prince’s masterpieces.
“Slow Love” is a wonderful track, a smoldering, leave-room-for-Jesus dance tune that brims with soul. But there’s nothing about it that isn’t captured better and to more ambitious effect by “Adore,” and there are a number of tracks sitting in the Prince vault that were laid down around this time that take that same basic energy in more creative directions.
“Forever in My Life”
Though it ultimately played well in the SOTT concert film, “Forever in My Life” has always sounded out of place on the album proper. Redolent of the cod-country twang that infuses “Raspberry Beret,” Prince’s arrangement lacks the basic pop hook to make this song stick in the brain, and on an otherwise faultless album filled with compelling tracks, this is the only one that feels like traditional double-LP filler.
Listen to Jake’s version of Sign ‘O’ the Times here: