Thursday, March 23, 2017

Album Review: Sign 'O' the Times by Prince

A few years ago Eric recommended I review old albums that get released for streaming, so this year I decided I would do that when there were particular albums I liked or was interested in. I won't put any of the songs off of these albums on my best of lists but I think it's fun to look back on stuff, especially an album like this that was released 30 years ago.

When I went to college in 1986 I was roomed with a kid from Chicago. Not only was he from a big city, but he was from money as well. He was very athletic, very good looking and I have no idea how he ended up in Lexington. That year of my life was critical for my musical growth as he put me onto all sorts of music I had never been exposed to previously. On the last day of school I was packing up to leave and he handed me a tape he had made for me of the Sign 'O' the Times album. As I got in my truck and started to back out for my drive home I slipped the tape into place and listened for the next hour or so to the album as I cruised down the Bluegrass Parkway.

I had never been a big Prince fan but this album grabbed me if for no other reason the song "Sign 'O' the Times." It was so interesting to hear Prince sing a song about what was happening in the world. That interested me and so I found myself for the first time really listening to a Prince album. This of course would then get me to go back and listen to all of his stuff. To me Sign 'O' the Times held such promise.  If I had known 30 years ago what I know now, that in many ways that would be Prince's peak, I would have been surprised and terribly sad, glad I didn't.  

Listening to it now 30 years later a few things stand out.  Prince was incredibly prolific over his career and this album represents that side of Prince quite well.  Prince also liked to experiment with many different sounds, from classic R&B, to funk, to pop, to well anything you can imagine.  This album also shows that side of Prince.  It's 16 songs that are all over the place and now listening to this album you can hear all the different directions Prince would go at different times before and after this album.

This album still stands out with how many good singles it has.  He was at the height of his talent in terms of writing melodies and hooks on this album.  But hearing it now 30 years later and knowing that he never made that serious social album, or never made that great soulful R&B album we all knew he had in him instead of feeling promise it just seems a bit sad we never got that from Prince and now he's gone.

I have to make a note here about the movie Sign 'O' the Times as well.  The minute it becomes available for digital watch it.  It's a brilliant concert film and really shows just how talented Prince was in a way that you can never get from a studio album.

Following the Rhapsody rating method I give it 3 out of 5 stars for Pretty Good. It has so many good moments on this album that it's hard to give it anything less than 3 stars.


  1. So this was the first Prince album of meaning, too, and isn't it strange that you and I resisted Prince together (during Purple Rain and the stuff before it) and then turned on to him separately at almost the same moment and in similar experiences? My Prince moment was the Sept. 11, 1987, Video Music Awards on MTV ... he did most of "Sign of the Times" on stage by himself with a guitar (and Cat dancing), and then Sheila E with a snare drum led the rest of the band from the crowd onto stage. I was in Louisville at a WKU friend's house. The whole way from Bowling Green, the two of us and a third friend had listened to R.E.M.'s Document cassette. I don't know what we were doing up there. But, anyway, the guy showed us around the house, and then it was time to go to bed. So the third guy and I threw out blankets on the downstairs couches and flipped on the TV (because cable-TV access was a huge treat in WKU's cable-less dorms of 1987), and there's Prince live on the VMAs on MTV. I would've turned away immediately, but I knew the third guy was a Prince fan. And within about 30 seconds, I was a Prince fan, too.

    1. First Prince album of meaning for me, too. Not the first Prince album of meaning--not at all.

  2. Just a little more than a year later, on Sept. 22, 1988, I went with this third friend and our girlfriends to the LoveSexy show at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati. It was absolutely the best concert I've ever seen. Absolutely. I'm not suddenly saying that because Prince died last year. It was just clearly the best.

    Prince ended that concert after a couple of encores with this song that you embedded the video for, "The Cross." I had bought the Sign of the Times album in that 12-month interim since seeing him on TV, so I had heard the song several times. But it wasn't a favorite. Then I saw him do it live with about 50 people on stage with him, a giant white peace flag flying overhead, people of different ages and races literally weeping in the Riverfront Coliseum cheap seats with me ... it left a mark.

  3. That right there is your preacher with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, and, in September 1987 and '88, I had nothing but newspapers in both hands and under both arms.

  4. And you're totally right about the movie. I had that thing on VHS for several years and ended up Salvation Army-ing it in a moment of move weariness. Remember "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"? That thing just makes me so thankful for life and humans.