Purple Spring Review: Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987)
PREVIOUSLY ON “OLD ALEXIUS”
(Lights up. The night is governed by a velvety yellow moon. The clouds have broken. A sad pipe organ plays in the abandoned church.)
Alexius: Harold Zo, you thought you could poison my blood and leave me stuck in slumberland while you took over my blog. What you did not realize is that I am not an animal of this hollow world. My power comes from beyond.
Mr. Harold Zo: I appreciate you not emphasizing the Mister. But let me tell you, the traffic numbers have been solid. Our perspectives on Prince will shape a few, yea, a few of this young generation who haven’t heard of His Purple Majesty.
(Alexius, inexplicably wearing a vampiric cloak, turns to face Mr. Harold Zo and his companions, who are tied up in the corner, their shadows pale and distended by the peaking moon. His fangs gleam in the unholy light.)
Quivver: You’ll never get away with this! The authorities know too much, and we will not go quietly!
Alexius: Hahah! Don’t spin such tales. This is hell. And I happen to know why you are here. You’re not on some cosmic tour. No.
Mr. Harold Zo: (Nervously twitching.) And why are we here, then?
Alexius: Pathetic wanderers. You pass here and there, playing your sad music. You won your skills in a game with the devil, and now you pay the penalty. Sure, you top the charts. But here? No one is here to shower you with praise. They’re too busy being eaten up by their own desires. Desire will be the death of all of us.
Mr. Harold Zo: How did you find out?
Alexius: You hacked into the psychic connction between me and my editor, did you not? Well, that means my editor had unfiltered access to your minds. He gave me that information–and a lot besides–about the time you were reviewing Parade.
Quake: Man, that’s a good record.
Alexius: Now, I will brook this infiltration of my blog no longer. I am writing the next review! What’s up next?
Quivver; Sign ‘O’ The Times.
Alexius: Excellent! You have saved the best for me!
Mr. Harold Zo: That’s a matter of opinion.
Alexius: Silence! Or I’ll feed your guitar to the hungry ghosts.
Mr. Harold Zo: This isn’t over yet.
Alexius: Let’s get off script a bit here? This is all a little rote. OK. I’ll let you stew in here for a night and see how you feel in the morning.
Quake: Thanks for feeding us, at least.
Alexius: I’m an animal, not a sociopath.
Quake: Good point.
Sign ‘O’ The Times emerged from the ashes of a few other aborted projects Prince was working on after Parade. One of them was going to be another album with The Revolution, the band that had been working with him since before Purple Rain. Another was a triple album set to be called Crystal Ball, a title that was later bestowed on a four-disc compilation album in the late 90s.
I find it appropriate that the album emerged from so many dead ends. Compared to the relatively peaceful, if energetic, image of melancholy and bliss that was Parade, this album is bleak, distorted, and more of a thrill-ride or safari than a carnival. Prince sets the mood with the title track, a four-minute slice of prophecy commenting on AIDS, gang violence, and other social ills. While it leads into the psychedelic bliss-pop of “Play in the Sunshine,” that song is cut off at the end with a sharp “Shut up already! Damn!” There is room for both joy and sorrow on Sign ‘O’ The Times but all of the songs seem to have on eye on the sun exploding in the sky and the fire reigning down.
While it sounds merely chaotic and unfocused on the first listen (that impression does not go away), subsequent run-throughs reveal a more considered, focused piece of work. It is consumed with venturing through all aspects of Prince’s, at this point, cluttered persona. His rock deity is indulged on “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” the aforementioned title track stabs at social consciousness, religion thunders into “The Cross,” and there is plenty of hard-edged funk to go around. “Housequake” evokes disaster and partying at the same time, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “Strange Relationship” are a one-two punch exploring both the more tender and weirder sides of Prince’s sexual prowess. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” references The Wizard of Oz while raving up the crowd into a frenzy.
Eclectic to and beyond a fault, Sign ‘O’ The Times is the ultimate portrait of Prince. All of the songs are at least excellent, with many pushing over into mythic territory. It’s not a cohesive statement on anything in particular, but it does demonstrate beyond a doubt that Prince is a musical genius and a fantastic entertainer. That’s all a Prince album has to do to be captivating as far as I’m concerned. Marshaling all of his considerable powers and myriad influences, this album remains the broadest, most complete illustration of who Prince is and was as an artist. Start with this one if you haven’t delved into his work yet. You won’t regret it.