Sign ‘☮’ the Times
Released: March 30, 1987
Peak: 6 US, 4 UK, 27 CN, 20 AU
Sales (in millions): 2.25 US, 0.3 UK, 4.03 world (includes US and UK)
Tracks, Disc 1:
Song Title [time] (date of single release, chart peaks) Click for codes to singles charts.
Tracks, Disc 2:
Total Running Time: 80:06
4.758 out of 5.00 (average of 19 ratings)
Quotable: “The best album of the ‘80s.” – Josh Tyrangiel and Alan Light, Time magazine
Awards: (Click on award to learn more).
About the Album:
“Soul, sex, excess: everything U listen 2 Prince 4.” BL “It took Prince three years to nail a worthy follow-up to 1984’s 13-times-platinum Purple Rain,” BL but this double album “silenced people…wondering whether superstardom had made Prince lose his touch,” DBW reminding the world he was “merely the most gifted pop musician of his generation.” RC It even “topped [Purple Rain] artistically.” BL This was “the most expansive R&B record of the Eighties” RS500 and, by some accounts, “the best album of the ‘80s.” TL This was “the last great R&B album before hip-hop became black American pop’s dominant form.” MM-116
This shows Prince pushing “his own boundaries on a sprawling rock-soul soundscape dotted by searing messages and wild mood swings.” UT “Fearless, eclectic, and defiantly messy,” AMG “this kinky double disc” BL “falls into the tradition of tremendous, chaotic double albums like The Beatles, Exile on Main St., and London Calling – albums that are fantastic because of their overreach, their great sprawl.” AMG
“A good deal of the songs…don’t sound like hits. They don’t even sound like they’re trying to be hits, which for Prince is really unusual.” MM-23 Sign “doesn’t show off its wares the way the earlier albums do; it meanders, ducks in and out of corners, substitutes feigns and jabs for the clean one-two punches of yore.” MM-23 It “has no business being anything but a career-sinking mess,” TL but Prince “achieved epic musical sprawl without sacrificing intimacy.” BL
“The way the more wildly arranged songs’ busy playfulness…works against the others’ leanness begins to make a specific kind of sense.” MM-25 Prince manages to “acknowledge all his musical influences while remaining uniquely his” DBW own. “Prince shows nearly all of his cards here, from bare-bones electro-funk and smooth soul to pseudo-psychedelic pop and crunching hard rock, touching on gospel, blues, and folk along the way.” AMG It “almost sounds like jazz in some parts.” MM-21Also, “more than on any other Prince album before it, the purple guy’s model is…James Brown.” MM-79
No More Revolution:
In April 1986, Prince put together a track listing for an album called Dream Factory, which underwent a couple of revisions through that summer, but included his backing band The Revolution. By late 1986, he had another possible project, Camille, which was marked by “electronically gender-bent his vocals.” BL
Then Prince merged the two projects into a proposed triple album, Crystal Ball. The record company nixed that idea, agreeing only to a double album. Prince also did some nixing of his own when he dropped the Revolution, who had backed him since 1982’s 1999. “He sounds liberated, diving into territory merely suggested on Around the World in a Day and Parade. While the music overflows with generous spirit, these are among the most cryptic, insular songs he’s ever written.” AMG
“Most of this is attributable to genius; Prince flips back and forth between R&B and rock like a kid popping wheelies.” TL “The lyrics show Prince in a rare state of maturity. Usually his lines range from overt sexual come-ons to garbled references to God, but here Prince actually has something to say.
“Apocalyptic imagery of drugs, bombs, empty sex, abandoned babies and mothers, and AIDS pop up again and again, yet he balances the despair with hope, whether it’s God, love, or just having a good time. In its own roundabout way, Sign ‘O’ the Times is the sound of the late ‘80s – it’s the sound of the good times collapsing and how all that doubt and fear can be ignored if you just dance those problems away.” AMG
“Sign ‘O’ the Times”
Prince decries the ills of society” RV on “the apocalyptic title track,” RS500 a protest song in which he shares “his alternating visions of hope and despair.” RV This “ruminative, angry” MM-88 “downbeat electro-blues” MM-63 features “cracking drum programming and an insta-catchy low-slung bass riff, a kind of streamlined version of Sly & the Family Stone’s ‘Thank You (Felettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).’” MM-88 It sounds “cutting edge” MM-26 but “its solemnity doesn’t fit the rather simple-minded lyric.” MM-87
“Play in the Sunshine”
This is a “busy, bustling” MM-83 “kicky rock number.” MM-63 This song “is closer than any other track here to sounding like Sign ‘O’ the Times in miniature.” MM-85
This is “a funny dance song in which Prince sounds like he’s singing through his nose.” MM-21 It uses “an odd, sped-up vocal that turned his voice into an androgynous twitter.” MM-62 This was the catalyst for the aforementioned aborted Camille album. MM-62 “Housequake” “is, in content, the most direct J.B. [James Brown] homage had recorded to that point.” MM-81
“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
The song’s unusual sound “was due to a blackout caused by a snowstorm: the power failure had disabled the tape machine, causing it to run at half-speed…Prince liked the results and left the song alone.” MM-67 The “drum part sounds through-composed rather than programmed; it keeps twisting around, upending and then righting itself, keeping a constant groove without subordinating itself to a monolithic beat.” MM-104
“There’s a brittle instability…that’s close to derangement, and the lyrics – with their nod to [the Beatles’] ‘Norwegian Wood,’ another song about the singer’s infidelity that dances around its actual topic – match it. Prince’s singing…is beautifully controlled; despite the fantasia aspect of the lyrics, the way he sings them – in a relaxed, almost bluesy manner – becomes the song’s reality principle.” MM-105-6
This song first surfaced on the original April 1986 track listing for Dream Factory. It made the cut for the two revised versions of the album and Crystal Ball.
This song and “Hot Thing” showcase “Prince as funky erotomaniac, an obsessive cocksman exercisinghis libido the way a Berklee School of Music grad practices her scales.” MM-76 This one, however, is “more like a generic exercise that sums up and stand in for the genre.” MM-76
“Starfish and Coffee”
This is “unambiguously playful, almost a kids’ tune, with a song-song chorus.” MM-106 The song “depicts Prince as an elementary schoolkid who’s intrigued by his classmate, Cynthia Rose: She wears different colored socks and describes her daily lunch as ‘Starfish and coffee / Maple syrup and jam / Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine / And a side order of ham.’ Prince and his friend Lucy don’t believe her, so they sneak a look, and what do you know – she wasn’t lying.” MM-107 “The moral is to open your mind because you never know what’s behind the magic curtain and/or in your schoolmate’s lunchbox.” MM-107
This “Stax revamp” RS500 is “practically a duet between Prince and the horn charts.” MM-69 “The easy fluidity of Sign’s bulk might not necessarily by itself suggest jazz, but add” MM-69 this song with “Housequake,” “Hot Thing,” “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” and “Adore” and “the album is colored differently.” MM-69 This is “a kind of parody of lounge singer smoooveness…Prince-as-seducer in a more old-fashioned guise than usual, crooning like he was Sinatra or Bennett.” MM-108 “You never doubt for a second that he wants you, he needs you, and if, as he puts it, ‘Love is 2 weak 2 define how much I adore you,’ he certainly craves you something fierce, and will crawl on his belly in order to get to you.” MM-110
Prince also delivers , “heavy funk” DBW on Hot Thing. The song “is hardly new territory for Prince, which may be one reason it’s so good. He knows the terrain so well he can work new changes on it at will.” MM-76 His vocal “moves from cocksure monotone strut to overwhelmed craving.” MM-75
“Forever in My Life”
This is “a drum machine, multitracked background vocals that anticipate the lead, some acoustic guitar at the end, and nothing else.” MM-22 Like “Dorothy Parker,” this “came about by accident; Prince mistimed his background vocals, which came in ahead of the lead. As a result, they conveyed his thoughts for him, like they’re written all over his face before he even says a word.” MM-106
“U Got the Look”
In the liner notes for The Hits/The B_Sides, Alan Leeds called this “a calculated exercise in commercial songwriting.” MM-65 “The electronic reggae downbeat…leads into an absurdly visceral groove whose distorto-guitar riff is pure pelvic thrust, somewhere between a Led Zeppelin riff or a hardcore-rave synth hook.” MM-97-8
This was the newest recording for the album. Everything else had originally been slated for proposed albums Dream Factory, Camille, or Crystal Ball.
“If I Was Your Girlfriend”
Prince sings this “gender bending” DBW song in his Camille alter ego persona, created “by scarily sped-up tapes.” AMG Originally, he intended an entire album released as Camille without anything identifying him as Prince. When the record company balked at the idea, he consolidated some of the tracks, including this one and “Housequake,” into the proposed three-disc Crystal Ball before he pared that project down to the two-disc Sign ‘O’ the Times.
The result is “the most disarming and bleak psycho-sexual song Prince ever wrote.” AMG He boldly released it as the album’s second single, which nearly derailed the momentum fueled by the #3 title song, but was restored with the #2 hit “U Got the Look.” “The downbeat tune” MM-102 “was his way of pushing the boundaries of just what could be popular.” MM-102 While the “title signaled gender confusion” MM-102 this is “one of the most honest songs Prince or anyone else has written about the give-and-take of relationships.” MM-103
There’s also the “chilling Strange Relationship. These fraying relationships echo in the social chaos Prince writes about throughout the album.” AMG Prince first attempted the song in 1982 and again in 1985. MM-71 He let Wendy and Lisa of the Revolution tackle it, giving it “a downcast, heavy psychedelic tinge.” MM-72 The version that finally appeared on Sign toned down their contributions, “refocusing the track on melody and rhythm rather than harmonic color.” MM-72
In addition, the vocal now feels somewhere between Prince’s normal voice and the Camille persona. MM-73 It makes “this creep attractive and charismatic; you can understand why someone might be drawn to this guy, despite his bad habits, because the melody is so bright, and Prince’s singing is so emotionally identifiable.” MM-74
This song is the only one on the album which survived through all the possible iterations of albums in 1986 and 1987. Prince included it in the original April 1986 track listing for Dream Factory, the two subsequent revised versions, Camille, and Crystal Ball.
“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”
This is the album’s “most straightforwardly guitar-heroic song.” MM-95 While Prince sings that he could never take the place of her man, critic Greil Marcus says, “No, but for the last minute he takes the place of Duane Allman.” MM-96 That solo of “anthemic rah-rah-ness…matches the song’s cheerleader melody and chorus.” MM-96 As in “Strange Relationship,” Prince “gets mileage out of the upbeat music/downcast lyrics incongruity.” MM-96
The Cross is a “religious rock anthem to die for.” DBW “It’s a gospel song sung and played like a rock song, and it’s one of the most intensely committed things Prince has ever recorded.” MM-93 It possesses “the same kind of solemn gravity [as the title track], from lyric to vocal to arrangement; both use similar imagery, invoking ghettos, poverty, and desolation.” MM-93 The song has been described as “the Staples Singers fronting the Velvet Underground.” MM-94
“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”
The Revolution do make an appearance on It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night, a “long, live party song” MM-21 which is “a funky, but slight…recording.” DBW It contains Prince’s “first flirtation with rap” DBW courtesy of Sheila E. reciting Edward Lear’s poem “The Table and the Chair” “in hip-hoppy cadence.” MM-84
This “drop-dead gorgeous” MM-63 and “The “lovely, complex ballad” DBW features what is “perhaps his finest vocal performance.” DBW
Notes: In 2020, a deluxe edition of the album was released with a third disc containing the singles, maxi-singles, and B-sides. A super deluxe edition contained six additional discs – three with previously unreleased studio tracks, two from a concert during the Sign ‘O’ the Times tour, and a DVD of a live New Year’s Eve show at Paisley Park.
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First posted 3/23/2008; last updated 8/22/2021.