1987 was a busy time to be Prince: He disbanded The Revolution, his backup band that had become as synonymous with his name as his love symbol. While he did try to make one more album for Revolution members Wendy Melvoin (guitar) and Lisa Coleman (keyboard), he jumped ship on that project. On top of that, he was in the midst of a separate solo project under the feminine alter ego of Camille and a triple LP. All of this seemed to lead up to one of the biggest years of the Purple One’s career, but it all crumbled. And yet, out of those ashes came the album that packed more punch (musically and lyrically) than anything else in Prince’s career.
Sign o’ the Times, released this week 30 years ago, is a manic, angry, heartbroken album made by a man who could also fit those adjectives. Prince seemingly unloaded all of his mental and emotional baggage like two jigsaw puzzles scattered out in the studio. It’s honestly amazing that he managed to put together the double-LP as well-constructed as it was. Sign o’ the Times does have the traditional expert musicianship expected on Prince albums, but something about its production is harder, meaner, more confrontational. The guitars sounded louder and more unhinged, the LinnDrum machines hit like piledrivers at a steel mill, and the synthesizers in the back were more atmospheric than before. Prince has always taken his R&B and mixed with a new chaser, whether it was stadium rock (Purple Rain) or psychedelia (Around the World in a Day), but Sign o’ the Times was raw, seemingly inspired by the rise of hip-hop in the late 80s. Since he made most of the album entirely on his own, there’s no denying that this was one of Prince’s most personal albums of his career.
Throughout the album is a balancing act between heartbroken tender Prince and furious funky mutha Prince. You have the likes of the title track, “Starfish and Coffee,” “Slow Love,” “Forever in My Life,” and “Adore.” These were slow jamming love songs for close body encounters, but Prince is more into begging-on-his-knees confessional love instead of versace on the floor. You also have the hard-hitting funk of “Play in the Sunshine,” “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” “Housequake,” “U Got the Look,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Prince captured his usual high-energy, sounding like he’s commanding a live audience on every track as he shouts to back row. But if you listen closer, there’s that roughness in the background of tracks. Take “Housequake,” with it’s spooky organs in the background and punchy drum beat forcing its way through the speakers. Same with the piercing guitars of “It” and “U Got the Look,” both meant to interrupt any form of relaxing night and turn it into a sweaty jungle house party. The world even got a taste of live Prince with “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” a nine-minute reminder as to why Prince is the true heir to James Brown as the hardest working man in showbusiness.
But then there are the oddballs of the albums, the ones that had Prince playing with his usual definitions of ballads. It’s fitting to start with “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” a strikingly funky slow jam propelled by a slap bass, electronic drums, and a strange repeating organ note emphasizing the awkward monologue Prince plays out. Then there’s the iconic “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” where Prince offers an early look at life in the friendzone, again with sparse drums and guitar work to show the desperation of story in the song. Even something like “The Cross,” the most haunting track on the album, uses as little instruments as possible to put all the focus on Prince’s vocals, a slow burn of hurt and suffering. It’s almost the spiritual successor to the title track, the after effects of the bleak street life Prince saw.
Lyrically, Sign o’ the Times was relevant in its time and is now a time capsule for 1987. Right from the title track (and album opener), Prince sets the scene: heroin, AIDS, gang violence, Hurricane Annie, “times.” Prince, clearly influenced by Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” creates a News of the World segment backed by a urban R&B beat while also setting the general atmosphere for the entire album. Prince also stuck with the vividly detailed lyrics throughout the album. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is a straightforward narrative (based on a dream he had) about Prince’s mishap with a cool girl he tried to take home, going so far as to detail his bathtub mishaps (“I said – ‘Cool, but I’m leavin’ my pants on (What you say?)/Cuz I’m kinda goin’ with someone’.”). “Starfish and Coffee” is Prince finding the light in darkness through the life of an Autistic school girl named Cynthia, inspiring open-mindedness through a little girl’s food of choice and her endless light attitude (“Cynthia had a happy face, just like the one she’d draw/On every wall in every school/But it’s all right, it’s for a worthy cause/Go on, Cynthia, keep singing”). But Prince is still a man nurturing a dark heart, as on “Strange Relationship” (“Baby I just can’t stand to see you happy/More than that I hate to see you sad/Honey if you left me I just might do something rash”) or his anti-bar bait anthem “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (“She asked me if we could be friends/And I said, oh, honey baby that’s a dead end”).
The highlights of the album are the love songs, specifically “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Using a vocal edit, Prince lays himself out as wanting to be a completely different sex to see his true love again. He doesn’t talk about sex or fooling around, he’ll take being her best friend and merely being a shoulder to cry on for the next love in her life. It’s all with the line “if I was your one and only friend/Would you run to me if somebody hurt you/Even if that somebody was me,” the emotion and passion in Prince’s delivery has a true longing for the connection between him and his lover. All he wants is to do is show how much he cares, which he ends up doing on the closing ballad “Adore.” For six and a half minutes, Prince finds dozens upon dozens of ways to love you and will keep telling you until the end of time.
If Purple Rain established Prince as a larger-than-life superstar, Sign o’ the Times reminded audiences that he was still human. Even with his sexual freakiness and mystique, he saw the world around him and his life unfolding before his eyes. Even as his perfectionism started crumbling around him, he decided to get a firm grip on himself and plant his feet in reality. Never mind that it kickstarted Prince’s eventual foray into his 90s hip-hop phase or remains a near-perfect collection of Prince’s musicality, it showed that the Purple One was still the man Prince Rogers Nelson, someone who’s life was as out of focus and unsure as he was on the album cover.