Music

Counterbalance No. 26: Prince’s 'Sign o' the Times'

Prince’s 1987 Sign o' the Times was His Royal Badness’ second double LP, and it’s Number 26 on the Acclaimed Music list. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger discuss this critics’ darling over starfish and coffee.

Mendelsohn: Klinger, I had a hard time with this record. Three weeks of repeated listening and I'm still at a loss for words. Half of this album (the sleazy, rhythm-driven, stripped down funk half) is really, really fun to listen to. The other half plays like the sound track to a John Hughes movie, which considering that this album came out in 1987 might explain its immense popularity. That being said: I'm still confused by Prince.

Klinger: Oh, Prince will confuse you, no question. He baffles his fans by defying expectations every step of the way. He’s perplexed his detractors by remaining a reasonably viable artist for over three decades. And he’s puzzled the general public with his odd choices in haberdashery and nomenclature.

I also don’t know where to begin talking about an album as messy and scattershot and occasionally brilliant as Sign o' the Times. Over the course of repeated listenings, I was all set to declare that not only is this not the 26th Greatest Album of All Time, but this isn’t even the 26th greatest album by Prince. At other times, I was ready to defend this record tooth and nail.

And that’s what has confounded me the most. Prince has had bigger hits (Purple Rain) and made double albums that were more cohesive statements (1999). Why then, is this the one that critics seem the most drawn to?

Mendelsohn: I think there are two reasons, that go hand-in-hand, for this album's success. First, is time and place. The mid- to late-'80s was not exactly the high-water mark in terms of music (or culture or fashion, etc.). But then you get Prince who is trying to say something socially relevant, before he reverts to sleazy, and he's doing it in a manner that sets him apart from the rest of the music acts of the time.

Klinger: But Prince had been mixing social relevance with social diseases for nearly a decade when this album came out. Controversy, one of his most political albums, takes time out for the jaunty “Jack U Off”, while the accurately titled Dirty Mind ends with “Partyup” (“You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war . . .”) So what makes Sign o' the Times a cut above?

Mendelsohn: I was about to address that with reason number two. Sign o' the Times is a double album, and as you have pointed out before, most double albums are either a Grand Artistic Statement or a Pile. Sign o' the Times is a pile. A gigantic, steamy pile of rock mish-mash. This is all compounded by the fact that Prince ditched his band, locked himself in the studio with a sampler and poured his soul out on to a piece of vinyl. That raw feeling still translates; you can tell he was just mining his brain, dumping whatever he could find on the listener. Critics lap that stuff up.

That's all we need to do, Klinger, we just need to bare our souls. Why are we writing about what other people wrote about music? We should be writing about the social ills of drugs and taking bubble baths with waitresses. Then, and only then, will we reach the height of acceptance, fame and money that we seek.

Klinger: You’re forgetting my solo album, Nyquil in the Tub with Brandi from the Cracker Barrel? That’s OK. But your theory still doesn’t explain why this album is No. 26 and 1999 is No. 201. I’d like to add a wrinkle that may help.

Immediately following the commercial peak of album/film/pop-up book Purple Rain, Prince embarked on a couple of high-profile bafflements. The psychedelicish Around the World in a Day was a critical disappointment, and his next feature film, Under the Cherry Moon, was an unqualified fiasco. Sign o' the Times gave critics the comeback story they love so very much, so they were willing to overlook a surprising amount of what appears to be filler.

Of course, our definitions of filler may differ. What’s taking up space on this album for you, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Filler? Anything that isn't Prince messing around with his sampler. "Play in the Sunshine", "Forever in My Life", "U Got the Look", "Strange Relationship", "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", "The Cross", "Adore". I suppose, following those criteria, I should also include "Starfish and Coffee" but that song just makes me smile, so I can't hate on it.

For me, the highlight of this album is listening to Prince craft avant-garde pop out of drum samples and synth stabs. The best this album has to offer can be found in the run from "Housequake" to "Starfish and Coffee". "Housequake" is futuristic funk, an homage to everything P-Funk.

"The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" manages to be sleazy and funky at the same time. "It" may sound completely dated but there is something about its stripped down simplicity that taps into the primal side of my brain. And then there is "Starfish and Coffee", which is pop music executed to the highest of standards.

Klinger: Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve liked an album for almost completely different reasons. “Forever in My Life”, with its Sly Stone harmonies and upbeat demeanor, is Prince’s best gospel song, one that I could see churches even picking it up if he hadn’t written so many “Jack U Offs” .

And “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” made for a great single once he trimmed three minutes of guitar musings off the end. Also I was disappointed to discover that this Dorothy Parker was not the Algonquin doyenne—I was hoping she’d spend the whole song peppering him with witty jabs and bon mots.

One thing we seem to be in agreement on, though, is that Side Four of this album is something of a wash. You list “The Cross” as filler; I think “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” has “rare B-side on a French 12-inch” written all over it. And neither of us would have included the slight “Adore”. This raises an interesting point: imagine you’re Prince.

Mendelsohn: Done.

Klinger: OK, now stop imagining that part of being Prince. You’ve come up with a solid set of tunes—for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s the run from “Sign o' the Times” to “The Cross” (a song I suspect Prince feels strongly about). That’s 65 minutes of music. In 1987, that’s too much for a single album and not enough for a double, and most people still bought LPs and cassettes. The limits of technology have forced you to pad out the fourth side. It’s a curiosity of its age that we’ve now remedied, since a CD (or, ahem, a .rar file) gives you a great deal more freedom. And that’s why albums today are so gloriously free of filler. Problem solved.

Mendelsohn: One might also imagine that Prince wanted to get it all out there as a way to clear the metaphorical decks. A cathartic release or something along those lines. It is interesting, though, that we might ascribe the length of the album to the technological limits of the time.

The notion of the album hasn't really changed all that much in 50 years. For the most part they have gotten longer, moving from 30 to 40 minutes closer to 60, but the average pop song no longer clocks in at 2:30 but rather pushes 3:00 or 3:30 so that can easily be explained away. Why haven't artists taken full advantage of this? What's stopping this generation's Prince from releasing a three-hour long, triple-disc opus? And who is this generation's Prince? It can't still be Prince, can it?

Klinger: Part of me wants to say that this generation can’t have a Prince, because that requires a level of unabashed will to bigness that I think was killed off in the self-mocking irony boom of the ’90s. There’s a level of sheer musical virtuosity backing up Prince’s bawdiness and flamboyance that leaves all this generation’s Ladies Gaga in the dust.

Were there to be some emerging artist who had all that, coupled with the audacity to create something of so bold a scope, I don’t see how I’d have any choice but to follow along.

Mendelsohn: The closest I could get was Kanye West. He has the will to bigness, the odd fashion choices, and he pretty much cornered the bafflement market over the past five years simply by getting in front of a camera and opening his mouth. He's got the talent but it doesn't compare to Prince's virtuosity. Plus, Kanye could never write a song called "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and sound sincere about it.

Klinger: All right, let me be clear about this. I’m not saying I want Kanye West and Lady Gaga to breed. God forbid. But if we could—just as an experiment—place them in some sort of genetic splicing machine, we might see just how close we can get to Sign o' the Times-era Prince. Of course, we’d then have to systematically remove any trace of that KanyeGaga from the planet, lest that freakish hybrid threaten to overtake us all. Let’s make that happen, Mendelsohn. For science.

Mendelsohn: Fine. You get goggles and rubber gloves, and I'll grab the net gun and a six-pack. We'll meet up at the lab in an hour.

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