Classic Music Review: Sign O’ The Times (1987)

Posted: January 5, 2017 in Music
Tags:

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Disk 1:

Sign O’ The Times This is a sparse song musically, automated drum track with a very minimal bass line.  The lyrics are what grabs the listeners attention.  Prince speaks darkly about the drug epidemic, gang violence  and an epidemic in the making, AIDS, although he never mentions it by name.  And then, just when the track lulls the listener by repetition, drums crackle through the silence, the drums sound like gunfire, which is appropriate for this song.  Some jazzy guitar solos end the song.  It’s a daring way to start an album, but this is an audacious album.

Play in the Sunshine:  The polar opposite of Sign O’ The Times, this is a very happy, upbeat song which starts out with the voices of children, happy and playing.  The instrumentation starts with a keyboard or some kind of electric piano. There’s a xylophone in the midst of the keyboard and two very distinct guitar solos The lyrics consist of going to a club and dancing, and having fun, but it includes the lines “We want to be free without the help of margarita and ecstasy.” And in another lyric, “We’re going to love all our enemies, until the gorilla falls off the wall, we’re going to rock him, we’re going to roll him, we’re going to teach him that love will make him tall.”  Not exactly Jesus, but better than most club songs, it’s trying for a message somehow.  There’s a very interesting break in the drums, that sounds like U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” I don’t think Prince did that by accident, or maybe it’s just a coincidence?

Housequake:  Make no mistake Housequake is a funk song.  Pounding drums with bass to match, with discordant keyboard and Prince playing an effects-less Nile Rogers style guitar accented by James Brown horns.  The lyrics try to introduce a new dance craze, that never took off but the song, as all funk should be, is a solid tribute to James Brown.

The Ballad of Dorothy Parker:  This song definitely calms the mood from Housequoke, simple arrangement drums, an  organ like keyboard, and a simple bassline.  Dorothy Parker was an early 20th century poet, but in this song, she’s a blond waitress who Prince tries to woo. There’s a Joni Mitchell reference embedded in the lyrics for no reason at all, but it’s fun.

It:  Another simple arrangement, simple staccato drums, the keyboard leaps out in sharp bursts, so simple, yet one of the most addictive songs on the album.   A nice simple guitar solo fits the song perfectly. It’s pretty clear what the It is in the song title.  Prince seems obsessed with It, not just with this song but on many songs on many of his albums. I could listen to this song over and over.

Starfish and Coffee:  Maybe it’s the alarm clock in the beginning of the song, but the instrumentation definitely sounds Beatle-esque to me, like Eleanor Rigby or a Day in the Life.  It almost sounds like a harp playing in the background through some of this song.That adds to the dreamlike quality of the song The lyrics tell of a unique girl, Cynthia Rose, whose favorite number was 20, and had a smile beneath her nose.  She had special dietary requirements as well.  It’s a hippie trippy kind of song, light and airy like a cloud, enjoy it.

Slow Love:  This is a Prince Slow Jam, meant strictly to romance someone, slow mournful sax, horn, and Prince breaks out his trademark falsetto for some of this song.  This is a Barry White type love song, a mood setter, a type of song that doesn’t exist anymore.

Hot Thing:  A futuristic sounding keyboard and pulsating bass track kicks off Prince’s salacious description of a dancer, “who’s barely 21.” What distinguishes this song though is the sizzling saxophone solo, it is a thing of beauty. Eric Leeds plays a mind blowing sax and deserves full credit for bringing this song to life.

Forever In My Life:  More simple arrangement, drum track and bass, and voice.  The lyrics are about a man finding that special girl and settling down, unconventional for Prince, but shows his versatility lyrically, nice acoustic guitar as a finishing touch.  It’s the polar opposite of Hot Thing.

Disk 2:

U Got The Look:

This song starts with some heavy guitar chords and some back and forth banter between Prince and formerly demure Irish singer of “Morning Train” Sheena Easton.  Sheena is transformed into a tough assertive girl, and the transformation is successful. U Got The Look is just a raucous, fun party, song with a screeching guitar solo to top it off.

If I Was Your Girlfriend:

A really funky bass track kicks this song off.  A really interesting song lyrically, Prince is asking an ex-girlfriend if they could be closer if he were her girlfriend. The question underlying the lyrics is are women closer to their women  friends then they are with their boyfriends or husbands? He employs his falsetto to great effect here to add to the gender bending fun.

Strange Relationship:  Musically, it’s bass and drums locked together, almost like a march, and keyboards sprinkling a melody over it.  This reminds me of his earlier work somewhat with the Revolution, the playfulness of the keyboard the solid beat, it’s another different style in an album filled with different styles. Lyrically, this song is another interesting point of view about the many contradictions of a man maybe recently broken up with a girl, who he still loves.  He’s treated her badly, but he wants her back, it’s contradiction on top of contradiction. “Baby, I just can’t stand to see you happy.”  More than that, I hate to see you sad, honey if you let me, I might do something rash, what’s this strange relationship?”

I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man: This is a song dominated by a guitar riff and matching keyboard.  Prince shows his guitar skills off nicely with a long guitar solo in the middle of the song, and there’s an interesting bridge that leads to a different guitar solo, with a funkier edge.  He just freelances with his guitar for a while and brings it back to the central song, and then fades out.  The lyrics are not as uplifting as the melody, as a man leaves a woman, with one child and another one on the way.  The woman asks Prince if he could step in to which Prince says.  “You wouldn’t be satisfied with a one-night stand, and I could never take the place of your man.”

The Cross:  This is one of my favorite songs, this starts out with a low electric guitar and some gentle strumming, but then the bass drum kicks in and snare drums and adds some urgency to the song and finally power chords kick in to make this a truly powerful song.  And then in a twist, the guitar is replaced with a sitar, adding an Eastern flavor to a Christian song. The lyrics are overtly Christian, but bringing hope to the poor and disillusioned, I think Prince really captures the true spirit of Christianity here, and that’s what makes it so powerful lyrically. “Dark day stormy night, no love no hope in sight, don’t cry he is coming, don’t die without knowing the cross.” That is powerful.  It’s not the only time he has infused Christianity into a song, he said the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of Controversy, which was controversial for some Christians as well as agnostics.  The was also “I Would Die For U” another reference to Jesus, lyrically.

It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night:  A live song,  dominated by  a great horn section, and the oh we oh chant from the Wizard of Oz, another great sax solo from Eric Leeds.  This is another example of a great funk song again in the style of James Brown. There’s even a rap in the middle of the song, nothing great, but it’s a tip of the cap by Prince of the power of the genre. There piano solos, guitar solos and horn solos.  It this song doesn’t get you dancing, check your pulse.

Adore: This is another love ballad with Prince using his trademark falsetto again.  He is professing his love for a girl until the end of time.  The song is simple and beautiful, another  song that sets the mood for romance.  With jazz hons from “Atlanta Bliss” and sax again from Eric Leeds, it reminds me of old school 70’s R&B like the Stylistics.  But he adds his own guttural bass tone to the vocals later, making it his own.  It’s very fitting way to end a monumental album.

I’ve wanted to write a review for Sign O’ The Times, ever since Prince passed away.  I think this is far and away his best album, look at all the topics he talks about drugs, AIDS, gangs, love, sex, relationships and religion.  Look at all the styles he uses, funk, RB, pop, guitar driven songs, jazz, dance even an homage to the Beatles, all while playing most of the instruments himself.

Some of the arrangements are spare, I think purposefully to make the listener pay attention to the lyrics, others have more elaborate arrangements where the listener gets lost in the music.  Even in the simplest arrangements there is always an interesting interplay between drums and bass, or drums, bass, and guitar, the songs are amazing for their simplicity and their complexity.

It was Sign O’ The Times that made me a Prince fan, after that I bought the older cd’s and the newer ones,  but this is my favorite for the incredible range and depth of the music and lyrics.  Prince had a way of talking about relationships in a very humorous, tongue-in-cheek way on this record, but he also wrote some of the sweetest love songs ever penned on this album, and that was the duality of Prince, lyrics dripping with innuendo, or romantic songs that could melt a woman’s heart.  He modulated his voice to deliver any song with ease, that was part of his enormous talent, his voice was another instrument in his arsenal.

Do yourself a favor, and listen to Sign O’ The Times at least once!

Sign o’ the Times:  Ahead of it’s Time.

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