As ubiquitous as Prince was in the 1980s (you could not escape the reach of his brilliant songs if you tried) I’ve always been a little behind the rest of the crowd when it comes to fully appreciating much of his work. I had 1999 on cassette back in 1984, I thought it was pretty good at the time, but the deeper cuts lost 14 year-old me. Purple Rain was brilliant of course, a super-taut, perfectly realized vision whose songs, every one of them, is burned into the minds of my generation. Around the World in a Day lost me; I thought I was too into metal to care much for his psychedelic-inspired pop. And Parade was the same thing; I thought “Kiss” was dumb and just couldn’t endure his falsetto. I had a lot of musical maturing to do, which eventually happened, but the timing just wasn’t right.
The same went for Sign o’ the Times. It took me years to get into. I still remember the initial critical euphoria that erupted when it came out, but it was just too big, too unwieldy, too mysterious, too diverse for my innocent ears. Besides, Sign o’ the Times is the very best example of a grower. Not everyone is ready for the kind of assault Prince launched in March 1987, and there’s honestly no reason to rush to follow what the critics say. Personally. I had to learn to appreciate a wide variety of music before I could properly circle back and fully appreciate what Prince pulled off, and when I finally did, my socks were blown clear off. That’s how it is sometimes. If you’re not ready for some music you think you should be into, give it a while. Even if it’s many years.
The fact was, I loved hard rock Prince as a teen. Loved it. The man could shred as well as any mousse-abused Hollywood glam metaler. It was, frankly, electrifying, so when he drifted away from that tiny little part of his oeuvre, I lost interest. But that interest came roaring back when “U Got the Look” came out as a single and video later that summer. What a track! It had those wicked guitar synths that Judas Priest used (or at very least the same tone), a hard backbeat groove (Sheila E on drums!), some pretty funny lyrics, and wait, that’s Sheena Easton. What the heck?! That song is one of the simplest rock songs Prince ever recorded, but I was hooked. Every time the video came on I had to watch it all the way through. A crazed fever dream on a lavish post-apocalyptic stage with a zillion people and everything happening once, the video is a little nuts, and to be honest a fitting encapsulation of everything happening on Sign o’ the Times.
Today, at 50 instead of 16 when the album came out, I have a much better handle on everything that happens on Sign, and it never fails to feel exciting, innovative, and completely audacious. Just look at how the record unfolds at the beginning. The title track uses cutting-edge sounds at the time to create an edgy hip hop/R&B hybrid with some of Prince’s most cutting social commentary. “Play in the Sunshine” bridges bubbly pop with some truly astounding jazz fusion/progressive rock musicianship. “Housequake” is as good an imitation of P-Funk as you will ever hear, while “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is a fun, Joni Mitchell-referencing slice of R&B, “It” is classic lascivious Prince, the closest he comes to sounding like he did on Purple Rain. “Starfish and Coffee” is effervescent psychedelic pop, while “Slow Love” is pure soul crooning, executed beautifully and perfectly. The range Prince exhibits on those seven tracks, and all the way through is astonishing to this day. What an imagination he had, but also what skill. He was a devoted student of so many forms of music, and by the time he blasts through the gorgeous “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and the extended rave-up “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”, you’re left dizzy from the experience.
When the posthumous Prince re-releases started rolling out a few years ago, everyone was hoping for a reissue of Prince’s masterpiece that offered a deep dive into the creative process that yielded the man’s greatest album, but when the details of the “super deluxe” reissue were released, the reaction was seismic. Boasting a whopping 63 unreleased tracks, Prince’s estate opened the vault in a fashion we rarely see. The new reissue clocks in at just over eight hours, and shows just how dizzying Prince’s genius was, and anyone who takes the time to explore the unreleased tracks, outtakes, and remixes will be richer for the experience. If that wasn’t enough, the eight-hour set concludes with a raucous live performance from Utrecht, Netherlands that explodes with energy as he and his band tear through then-new tracks and earlier fan faves. Whether you binge on these tracks or choose to dabble here and there to savour it all, this collection is so rewarding that every listener will be the better for it.
Jumping from early 1987 to late 2020, I find myself in the exact same position, with another daunting, seemingly overwhelming listening experience that I’ll be coming back to again and again. It’s only fitting that Prince’s most eclectic record be expanded into one of the wildest reissues in rock and pop history, and once again it will be literal years before I can fully grasp the breadth of what the man was doing all those years ago. But that’s part of the fun of being a music fan, isn’t it? There’s never a shortage of great stuff to discover.