Tell Me Who in This House Know About the Quake
Would a look into Prince's Crystal Ball ever have predicted this?
For the third of its deluxe album reissues - following a 3CD/DVD expansion of Purple Rain and a 5CD/DVD deluxe box of 1999 - Warner Records and NPG have unveiled the most lavish archival project yet to emerge from the Prince archive. In terms of both physical size and its contents, the new Sign "O" The Times Super Deluxe Edition box set is larger in every sense than its predecessors: a bountiful 8 CDs and 1 DVD in an LP-sized, slipcased, 120-page hardcover book format. (It's also available in a 13LP/1DVD set and in smaller, cut-down versions on both CD and vinyl.) Prince's double-album masterwork was sprawling in 1987, and it's even more so now as it's grown to feature an abundance of related singles and B-sides; three discs of never-before-heard and long-coveted vault tracks; and live concerts on both CD and DVD. For many artists, this volume of material might be exhausting as well as exhaustive. The set also had the potential to demystify the aura that's long surrounded Sign "O" The Times as an album that went through numerous iterations and track listings. But the mystique happily remains intact, as these nine discs open a window onto the creative process of the dazzlingly prolific, infinitely imaginative, and utterly insatiable singer-songwriter-musician-arranger-producer and all-around multi-hyphenate.
Guess You Know Me Well (Strange Relationship)
AIDS, gang violence, drugs, natural disasters, poverty, the Challenger tragedy, impending nuclear apocalypse...Prince didn't shy away from chronicling the times in which he was living on the original album's opening track and title song. While, for many, the "greed is good" decade signified high times in the U.S.A. - for a while, at least - the barrier-breaking artist cut to the reality beneath the surface gloss. He did so in D.I.Y. fashion, building a track from stock sounds off a Fairlight synthesizer (including a cool, detached bass) and adding a guitar part as sharp and jagged as his plain-spoken lyrics. The sprawling, expansive double album in subtle, dynamic, newly remastered sound by Bernie Grundman fills the first two discs of the new set.
Sign "O" The Times, for all of the reported compromises in boiling down what Prince submitted as a triple-album set into a double one, nonetheless represented his vision, consummated. The album transformed the mundane into the transcendent: sometimes lyrically and sometimes musically - as in his use of pre-programmed keyboard sounds. As with almost all double albums, there's something shambolic about Sign, but from that imperfection comes much of its appeal. Prince put everything on the table: silky soul, pulsating electro-funk, crunchy guitar rock, trippy pop, plenty of rhythm, and a touch of the blues. It balanced the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the sensual.
As his first album without his band The Revolution since 1982's 1999 (though they do appear on one track), Sign had a steelier, more overtly electronic feel. But Prince varied the textures, styles, and settings, and more importantly, gave it a beating human heart. Many of the songs are simply based upon the eternal fodder of pop songwriters, relationships - and particularly upon the dissolution of his relationship with Susannah Melvoin, his onetime fiancée and lead singer of The Family. Prince could have been a pop songwriter - and frequently was, as evidenced by the songs he gave away to other artists ("Manic Monday," "Nothing Compares 2 U," and so on). But one genre was too confining for this restless artist.
A storming, Motown-esque opening heralds the joyful "Play in the Sunshine," a sometimes-impressionistic anthem that's the light to the dark of "Sign." Whereas the opening had beautifully delineated clouds, Prince found the ray of "Sunshine" to cut through them. Pleasure and joy had a place in Prince's Times (see: the hedonistic hip-hop rave-up "Housequake" featuring the album's first appearance of his female alter ago, Camille, or the live funk workout "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," the lone track with The Revolution). So did sex, one of Prince's signature themes. When he sings about wanting to do "It" all the time, there's only one thing he's referring to ("and it's so divine"). In the course of the song, he does name it, over throbbing rhythms and unleashed yelps of desire. "Slow Love" is an even more erotic late-night retro R&B jam with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman on background vocals (Wendy also played guitar), saxophone and trumpet played by Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss, respectively, and a piano part that could have been dropped into a doo-wop record. Prince's use of the horns and particularly the sax adds the modern flourish that keeps the song rooted in the present of the album but it's unabashedly retro, too; even the drums are softer. Leeds' horn is used to fine effect, too, on the lusty "Hot Thing." On the flipside of the coin is "Forever in My Life," a sweet and romantic ode to settling down with the right person. Prince croons over spare accompaniment and layers of his own voices, singing just ahead of himself to create an unusual vocal effect.
Sheena Easton guests on "U Got the Look," one of the most "pop" tracks on the original double album. The straight-ahead rocker with power chords and a scorching solo juxtaposes Prince's Camille vocals and Easton's, as well as Sheila E's live percussion vs. the Linn drum machine. "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" builds on this foundation but is even more pop than rock, with a pristine, gleaming production that stands out on the dark, frequently spare album. The catchy sing-along features an equally deft blend of live and electronic instrumentation.
Prince had so much Camille material that he at one point considered spinning her off onto an album of her own. Camille's higher-pitched vocals also appear on the unsettling "If I Was Your Girlfriend." Its opening sound collage cedes to the spare, bass-and-drum machine track. It's another head-on look at sex and its role in a relationship as Prince imagines a more intimate rapport from a platonic girlfriend via frank, explicit lyrics. On "Strange Relationship," Camille narrates over thumping drums and a synth-disco setting. Its chilling rumination of a complex (love-hate?) relationship is presented in an off-hand, almost conversational manner that's arresting.
Some of the more unusual, quirkier tracks contribute to Sign's colorful character. "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" has nothing to do with the Algonquin Roundtable doyenne, but Prince's titular waitress does share a quick wit with her namesake. It's an offbeat story-song with a Joni Mitchell name-check for her 1974 hit "Help Me" set to a lithe funk groove. Prince would return to the whimsical "Starfish and Coffee" many times over the years. It was based on a true story shared by Susannah Melvoin (who is credited as co-writer) and clearly it resonated deeply to him.
The album returns to social conscience near its conclusion with the striking imagery of "The Cross," as the artist's voice takes on a directness and a clarity purposefully obscured elsewhere. But there's one final grace note. Philadelphia soul maestro Thom Bell's influence on Prince (see his subsequent covers of "Betcha by Golly Wow" and "La La Means I Love You") manifests itself on the lusty slow jam "Adore." It isn't remotely pastiche (neither the song's melody nor arrangement recalls Bell's elegantly melodic, lushly orchestrated Philly soul masterworks), but Prince's use of falsetto makes for a showcase worthy of Russell Thompkins, Jr. and The Stylistics. In the busy arrangement, he also brings back the horns and channels Bell's signature use of an electric sitar sound (Prince is believed to have used samples of a sitar) to create something new yet familiar.
This Is What It's Like in the Dream Factory
Four singles were commercially released from Sign: the title track, "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "You Got the Look," and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man." The third CD of the box collects 13 related single edits, mixes, and B-sides. But the undisputed highlight of the collection is the largest excavation yet of Prince's Vault Tracks. The expanded Purple Rain featured one CD with 11 previously unreleased tracks, and 1999 bested that with two CDs and 24 such gems. Sign "O" The Times ups the ante considerably with 45 tracks on 3 CDs: a potpourri of outtakes, alternates, and works-in-progress. These comprise music intended for Prince and The Revolution's proposed double LP Dream Factory; the solo, pseudonymous Camille; the original 3-LP Crystal Ball (which became Sign "O" The Times when slimmed down to two discs at the behest of Warner Bros. executives); and various and sundry side projects. What might be most shocking is how finished these songs seem. Most of them were mixed by Prince, with a handful recently mixed in faithful fashion by Niko Bolas.
Dream Factory was an apt title for Prince. His prodigious talents as a singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist allowed him to bring his wildest musical dreams to life. This proposed double album with The Revolution had various track listings mooted by the artist and would have - at one time or another - incorporated some of the titles later heard on Sign including "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," "Strange Relationship," "Starfish and Coffee," and "It."
"The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" is presented in an extended version featuring Eric Leeds on saxophone. The horns add that human touch and a dash of swing to the electronic-based composition. Prince was so fond of it that it had a place on the track listings for Dream Factory, its potential successor Crystal Ball, and the final Sign. The same goes for "Strange Relationship." While the original 1983 recording remains in the vault, this set presents a 1985 version featuring Wendy and Lisa as well as a subsequent Shep Pettibone remix of the final recording.
Wendy and Lisa figure on some of the most memorable vault tracks. The 1982 version of Prince's "Teacher, Teacher" was issued on the 1999 box set last year, while the 1985 Dream Factory version with Melvoin and Coleman premieres here; they add to its air as an empowered and confident spin on a girl group melody. Lisa's "Visions" and Wendy's "Colors" are the two rare tracks on this set not composed by Prince; he thought enough of "Visions" to slot the improvised piano solo as the opening track of Dream Factory throughout its incarnations. The boisterous, Latin-tinged "A Large Room with No Light" was based on a Wendy and Lisa jam. Like the jazz-inflected band instrumental "And That Says What," it would have totally changed the sound of character of Sign "O" The Times had it been retained.
The slow, moody falsetto ballad "Power Fantastic," briefly listed for Dream Factory, is heard in an entire run-through with Prince calmly leading the musicians including Wendy and Lisa, Atlanta Bliss, Eric Leeds, and drummer Bobby Z. A version without the long, jazz intro was released in 1993 but the fly-on-the-wall look at Prince in the studio deepens appreciation of not just this track but the other intricate productions here.
"A Place in Heaven" and "Wonderful Day" figured into two Dream Factory sequences, and two versions of each are included. "Big Tall Wall," intended for the first iteration, is also heard twice. The semi-autobiographical tune boasts a great hook and catchy riff, but the first version here is one of a handful that would have benefited from judicious editing had it actually been released as Prince stretched the track to the breaking point. Prince was forever tinkering; the rocking "Witness 4 The Prosecution" is heard in two 1986 versions recorded just months apart. Both have the horns of Bliss and Leeds powerfully offsetting the driving rhythm.
The carnival-esque "All My Dreams" - on which Prince experiments with his voice at different pitches and effects, joined only by Wendy and Lisa's vocals - would have closed two sequences of Dream Factory. While Prince's version remained unreleased until now, "Train" (part of the third Dream Factory line-up) is familiar from Mavis Staples' 1989 Time Waits for No One album in which the gospel/R&B legend replaced his vocals with her own.
We Are Here, Where Are You (Rebirth of the Flesh)
Once Prince split from The Revolution (and members Wendy and Lisa, his frequent collaborators during this creatively fertile period), he lost interest in releasing Dream Factory. Instead, he got to work on the triple album Crystal Ball - the title of which he would recycle for his 1998 three-disc rarities release. The roots of Sign "O" The Times are clear in Crystal Ball as 15 of its proposed 22 songs found their way onto Sign. The box premieres an edit of the title track which appeared in longer form in 1998 as well as "The Ball", a track that repeatedly refers to "crystal ball" and was retitled "Eye No" for the 1988 album Lovesexy.
"Rebirth of the Flesh" is one of the "Camille" tracks included on the Vault discs, and would have been included on the Camille album which Prince prepared between Dream Factory and Crystal Ball. Once that album was scrapped, the artist chose to repurpose it as the opener of Crystal Ball, signifying his artistic rebirth as a solo artist. Its lyrics reflect Prince's rejuvenated feeling after he disbanded The Revolution in pursuit of new musical dreams, and those personal words feel as spontaneous as the loose melody and insistent rhythm. A rehearsal version from 1988 was issued by Prince in 2001 as a digital download, but this marks the first appearance of the October 1986 recording.
Numerous other tracks related to Sign "O" The Times and its long gestation have been rounded up. The earliest cut dates to 1979: a lean, stripped-down pop version of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" with multitracked vocals and Prince on live drums, bass, guitar, and synths. "Cosmic Day" is indicated by author Duane Tudahl in his excellent track-by-track liner notes as "perhaps the biggest 'Holy Grail' in this collection." The November 1986 recording from the period between Camille and Crystal Ball combines numerous elements of Prince's art. It's sung in his Camille voice, blends electronic and real instrumentation (including a Clare Fischer orchestration), and references and repurposes the past (in this case, George Harrison's famous "What Is Life" riff) in a psychedelic brew with searing guitar.
A runner-up for "Holy Grail" might well be "Can I Play with U?" with Miles Davis, originally intended for Davis' Warner Bros. debut Tutu and later mooted for release on a 2001 Davis box set that never saw fruition. Miles, unsurprisingly, gets into the loose vibe of the song which also features Eric Leeds on saxophone, but his presence seems like an afterthought. It's one of the rare disappointments on this collection, though it's certainly a welcome inclusion.
Other collaborations, sadly, never happened. "Emotional Pump" was pitched to Joni Mitchell; while the electro-pop sound itself isn't too far removed from the then-current sounds the singer-songwriter was exploring at Geffen Records, it's hard to imagine her singing these lyrics. In fact, she didn't connect with them, and is quoted in the notes confirming such while praising Prince and the composition. Mitchell's style has always been deeply personal, even when reinventing classic standards or works by her contemporaries. The song, with its catchy riff, is a fun curio, though - and one of the many might-have-beens here. "I Need a Man" was reworked for Prince's onetime Warner Bros. labelmate Bonnie Raitt based on a song he had written and recorded for The Hookers, an early version of Vanity 6. Raitt did add vocals and guitar to the upbeat track, but her version remains in the vault (and was pulled by Warner Music after it appeared on YouTube).
"Promise to Be True" and "Jealous Girl" are among the other tracks re-envisioned for Raitt, with live horns contributing to the bright, brassy sound Prince imagined for the versatile artist. "There's Something I Like About Being Your Fool," dating back 1981, was offered to Jill Jones. Prince revisited it in 1987 with new lyrics, overhauling the arrangement to a relaxed reggae style with primarily live instruments, layering piano, flute, trumpet, and guitar.
Prince had his sights on other media, too. The pretty, falsetto-led "Crucial" was written for an abortive musical, The Dawn, and has many of the same Philly soul-esque hallmarks as "Adore." While it never appeared on any official track listing for Sign "O" The Times, Prince indicated that it was, in fact, replaced by "Adore." This take has different lyrics to the version released in 1998 and compositionally might even be stronger than the song which replaced it. "When the Dawn of the Morning Comes," "The Cocoa Boys" and "It Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Lady Sings" were all also reportedly penned for The Dawn. With its Clare Fischer orchestration, the latter's theatrical melody could easily have served as the musical's overture. Though little is known about the musical, these songs offer a mightily tantalizing taste. (Prince, whose "conceptual continuity" shared much in common with rock iconoclast Frank Zappa, would utilize the words and imagery of "the dawn" often in his work.)
Even with so many potential projects, Prince left behind scores of songs unassociated with one particular work even as he was putting together Crystal Ball/Sign "O" The Times in 1986. The midtempo "Love and Sex" is wholly different than the 1984 song of the same name; the swaggering, funky "Blanche" ("such a sexy wench") adopts the characters of Blanche and Stanley for its lyric but isn't otherwise related to A Streetcar Named Desire. The dreamy "Adonis and Bathsheba" adds flugelhorn to its flute, saxophone, and trumpet complement. Prince's final breakup with Susannah Melvoin inspired "Wally." It's the rare track in which his voice is raised so high in the mix as to become the song's defining element and focus attention on the conversational, personal lyrics above all else. It's easy to see why longtime engineer Susan Rogers believes the song to be among his finest work. Addressed to his bodyguard Wally Safford, Prince addresses loss and loneliness with a childlike innocence and vulnerability ("What am I gonna do? She was the only one in the whole world that I could talk to...") that's disarming. On the other end of the spectrum is the humorous "Everybody Want What They Don't Got," a loping track with keyboards, real drums, and nine layers of vocals cut at the same session as "The Cross." It sounds like nothing else on this set, yet this compact and melodic ditty is one of its most enjoyable as it conjures a very '70s feel that, no joke, melodically recalls Chicago or Steely Dan.
Prince left so much strong and varied material in the vault that depending on one's personal taste, an equally strong album to Sign "O" The Times might well have been compiled from these tracks. But any of them might have fundamentally altered the spare, haunting, searching nature of the final album. Prince's instinct - spurred on by the music-minded Warner execs, chiefly esteemed producer Lenny Waronker - to boil the album down to two LPs was the correct one. Sign "O" The Times presented enticing glimpses, musically and lyrically, of the songs and styles he left behind, but any shifts might have weighted it too heavily towards soul, R&B, jazz, rock, or orchestral pop. With this box, Prince's excursions into all of those genres and more can be appropriately savored in the context of the finished album.
Until the End of Time (Adore)
The Super Deluxe Edition produced and with A&R by Michael Howe endeavors to paint a full picture of Prince's activities at the time, so two live shows are also presented: one on two CDs, and one on DVD. Live in Utrecht 6/20/87 is spread across the two audio discs, with the superstar backed by the electrifying Sheila E on drums, Levi Seacer, Jr. on bass, Miko Weaver on guitar, Matt Fink and Boni Boyer on keyboards, Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss on horns, and Cat Glover (often referred to simply as "Cat" by Prince), Wally Safford, and Greg Brooks on dance/vocals. The band is hot and tight running through ten songs from Sign plus the familiar likes of "Purple Rain," "1999," "When Doves Cry," "Kiss," and "Little Red Corvette." Six months later, the DVD finds Prince and the same band in even more comfortable quarters: his own Paisley Park, for the 12/31/87 New Year's Eve show. The setlist is similar but hardly identical, with the addition of "Adore" and "U Got the Look" off Sign and older material such as "Erotic City," "Do Me, Baby," and "Let's Pretend We're Married." Capping off the joyful evening, Miles Davis dropped in to blow his horn on the "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" finale. The music videos of "U Got the Look," "Sign 'O' The Times," and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" are also included on the DVD.
Everything is packaged in a slipcase containing a stunning 120-page hardcover, coffee table-worthy tome. In addition to numerous full-page color photos, the book has a foreword by Lenny Kravitz; a chat with Dave Chappelle; essays from Daphne A. Brooks, Andrea Swensson, and Susan Rogers; Duane Tudahl's deep dive into the unreleased material; replicas of Prince's handwritten lyrics; memorabilia images; and full credits with discographical annotation. The nine discs are housed in slots within the book (but with no outside sleeves to protect them).
It's been over four years since Prince's passing, but it's clear that his musical legacy is in good hands. A rebirth, exorcism, rumination, and reflection from an ever-changing artist at the peak of his powers, Sign "O" The Times has never looked or sounded so lustrous. "Hurry before it's too late..."
Sign "O" The Times: Deluxe Edition (NPG/Warner Records, 2020) is available from:
Remastered 2CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Remastered 2LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Expanded 3CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Expanded 4LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Deluxe 8CD/DVD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Deluxe 13LP/DVD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada