If you’re making a list of the most brilliant double albums in history – Songs in the Key of Life, The Beatles, Bitches Brew, Blonde on Blonde, Physical Graffiti, and yes, 1999 – Prince’s 1987 masterpiece Sign O’ the Times has to be on that list.
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that part of my love for this album is driven by nostalgia. Sign O’ the Times (along with George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Terence Trent D’Arby’s Introducing the Hardline According to…, INXS’s Kick, George Michael’s Faith, and R.E.M.’s Document) was the soundtrack to my freshman year in college. And a very good year it was.
Nostalgia aside, Sign O’ the Times is a killer album, stacked with one amazing track after another. Is it Prince’s best album? That’s up for debate, obviously, though I’m guessing many people would say his best album is Purple Rain. But Sign O’ the Times is my favorite Prince album, hands down.
Released on March 31, 1987, Sign O’ the Times was Prince’s first album after the dissolution of his backing band, The Revolution. It was originally conceived as a triple album, but Warner Brothers balked at the idea and Prince was forced to trim it down to a double. The songs encompass an array of genres, including funk, R & B, rock, psychedelic pop, folk, and even gospel. Many of the tracks have a raw, unfinished feel, which was obviously by design (Prince never did anything by accident).
Fun fact: in 1986, Prince created an androgynous alter ego named Camille, whose voice Prince produced using a pitch-shifting technique. Prince actually recorded an entire album as Camille but the project was scrapped (the album will finally see a release sometime this year, according to Third Man Records, who recently acquired the rights). Four of the songs from the Camille sessions ultimately ended up on Sign O’ the Times: “Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, “U Got the Look” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.
While not Prince’s most commercially successful outing – that’d be Purple Rain by a landslide – Sign O’ the Times sold well enough to land it in the top ten on the Billboard 200, where it peaked at #6. It also yielded three top ten singles – the title track, “U Got the Look” (with special guests Sheena Easton and Sheila E.) and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (an additional single, “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, made it to #67).
Sign O’ the Times was critically acclaimed as well. It was voted the best album of 1987 in The Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop list. Robert Christgau, music critic for The Village Voice, called Sign O’ the Times “the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish” and said the album “established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era—as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer.” In 2004’s The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Michaelangelo Matos declared that Sign O’ the Times is “the most complete example of [Prince’s] artistry’s breadth, and arguably the finest album of the 1980s.”
At the 30th Grammy Awards, Sign O’ the Times was nominated for Album of the Year along with U2’s The Joshua Tree, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Whitney Houston’s Whitney and Trio by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Though The Joshua Tree took home the prize, it would have been a tough vote for me. Prince probably didn’t give a shit about awards, anyway; he created music because the music was inside him. And maybe a little bit for the women.
Check out this very cool New York Times video about the creation of “Sign o’ the Times”, which includes interviews with sound engineer Susan Rogers and Prince’s former fiancée and muse Susannah Melvoin.
By the way, Susannah Melvoin co-wrote one of Sign O’ the Times‘ standout tracks, “Starfish and Coffee”. While researching this piece, I found this charming version featuring the Muppets. The song was inspired by a quirky former classmate of Melvoin’s, Cynthia Rose, who “always stood at the back of the line, a smile beneath her nose”.