CD Review: Prince – Sign O’ The Times Super Deluxe Edition

When Prince was hot, he was hot, and once he got his own studio in 1986, he went in there the way you and I go to work, except he likely went in earlier and stayed later.  By the time the songs on Sign O’The Times were released by Warner Brothers in 1987, they had made it through multiple cullings, judgment calls, and proposed but abandoned projects in which Prince may or may not have appeared with his old band, or presented himself as his own gender. The music he was leaving on his cutting room floor, discarded in the effort to keep up with himself, was often phenomenal.

Some of those songs had made it all the way from the days in which he had intended to marry Susannah Melvoin, some clearly sprang from the intense pain of that relationship falling apart. Some featured performances and songwriting contributions from the Revolution, some were pure solo works, some had his ex-partners parts’ wiped from the mixes. This new 8-disc Super Deluxe box set marks the first official attempt to collect all the significant works in one place, and the final product is a jaw-dropping success, a must-have for fans of his work.

The album itself really benefits from this remaster. The multi-layered production can finally be heard with the detail that was always intended to be heard. Percussion on the title track now pops in three dimensions. It remains a peak of the Prince catalog, a chance to hear him do every single thing he does well. But unavoidably, the real excitement comes from the material we haven’t heard before. Not even the most ardent bootleg collectors have heard all this stuff, and not much of it in high fidelity.

There are a variety of lenses through which to view this messy, electrifying collection of tracks. Historians know that the work began on a Prince & The Revolution album to be called Dream Factory in early 1986, going through multiple permutations before the band dissolved. Prince then continued work by himself, and either wiped the Revolution off the tracks or started over, This revised collection was shaped into a 3-LP set known as Crystal Ball. There was also an entire album planned for Camille, a female character whose androgynous altered voice made its way onto the final product via the heartbreaking “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.

This package does not attempt to recreate any of those could-have-been-classic albums. Many of the the tunes that were ultimately released on the later collection titled Crystal Ball and elsewhere, are omitted. But presenting the material in an undifferentiated lump over three CDs, with no attempt to place any track within one existing Prince album or another, is ultimately the best way for them to do it. Trying to guess around the original artistic intentions of a project this massive is a fool’s errand.

Listen to all three discs of alternates, plus the two CDs of cracking live performances from one of the very first post-Revolution concerts, and all the B-sides and alternate mixes on disc three. You may want to make notes. Then decide for yourself how to group them together, and make yourself some playlists.

Here are some moments not to be missed:

Housequake – This is the undisputed jam, the one where he tries to make you forget about James Brown by invoking him, then out-doing him at his own act. The live version from Utrecht, Holland with Sheila E on drums is a scorcher, possibly Prince’s most barn-burning 5 minutes on tape.

If I Was Your Girlfriend – This most sex crazed of singers searches for an intimacy that surpasses the physical, unattainable to him, and the realization makes him scream like a little girl.

Hot Thing – This club banger gets an extended mix as well as a so-called dub mix that is basically another extended mix, not “dubby” in the Jamaican sense of the term. Live, the extended intro on this track is so hypnotic as to be almost psychedelic.

The Ballad of Dorothy Parker – This song feels like an inflection point, the beginning of an obsession with dreamy, airborne grooves suspended over jazz chords. The alternate version with saxophone is a delight.

All My Dreams – This feels like a grand finale number from an unwritten musical, Prince in top hat and tails with backup singers harmonizing and high-kicking on the stairs behind him.

Can I Play With U –  This collaboration with Miles Davis doesn’t really reach the heights we would have hoped for, but it’s worth hearing. The track may be slight but it has a hot groove and Miles does catch it.

Visions – This dreamy Lisa Coleman solo piece must have been a favorite of Prince himself, slated as the opener for Dream Factory through three different iterations.

Witness 4 The Prosecution – Two versions, both funky, New Jack Swingin’ when New Edition is still a boy band.

Power Fantastic – This live in studio track of the Revolution is preceded by Prince telling Bobby Z what he has presumably just been explaining to the rest of the group about how to play a spacey intro that progresses to fast noise and dissipates, right before they go ahead and do exactly what he just described.

Love And Sex – A Dirty Mind-worthy slow burner with a heavy guitar and a high vocal.

A Place in Heaven – This gorgeous lullaby appears as both a Prince vocal, and a Lisa vocal version. Both are lovely and very welcome. Why it appears in a backwards version – and this was confirmed as one of the ways it was originally intended to be released – is a question up for interpretation at this point. All three appear here so feel free to pick a favorite.

In A Large Room With No Light – Lyrics that mirror the social justice concerns of the title track, and a jumpy Latin jam that is said to have come from Wendy & Lisa, with a scorchingly intense buildup to its close. Prince performed this song in LA at a Club Nokia show in 2009 and I’m told that the ten people in attendance who knew it from bootlegs lost their ever-loving minds.

Everybody Want What They Don’t Got – Sounds like Prince woke up thinking about Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Soul Psychodelicide – This jam, cued and then pumped by the sound of Prince hollering “Ice creeeeeeeam!”, heated up many a late night after-show jam, and appears here with a rare live in studio version.

Adonis and Bathsheba – One of Prince’s most twisty, psychedelic ballads.

Emotional Pump – You can see why he thought this would be great for Joni Mitchell, and why she declined.

Rebirth of The Flesh –  Camille at her most ass kicking, with “La-la-la” chorus. This would have been a dance floor filler in ’87.

Cosmic Day – Another throwback to the Dirty Mind era with an irresistible riff.

Wally – This song has been written about but never widely heard before this release, even rumored to have been destroyed for being too specific and personal to actually put out. Listening to it actually does feel uncomfortably intimate, like peeking at a diary entry. It’s a more intimate than usual moment from a public figure who wore his heart on his sleeve.


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