Listen to this track by diminutive musical savant Prince. It’s “Sign O’ The Times”, as taken from the 1987 LP of the same name, Sign O’ The Times, a post-Purple Rain double-album that would keep Prince on his trajectory to being one of the most influential, and certainly one of the most prolific, artists of the decade.
Despite being a singular artistic entity capable of creating albums completely on his own, this was the first album released after his work with his celebrated back-up group The Revolution. The previous album Parade (featuring his now very well covered single “Kiss”) was the last record that group would collaborate with him on in name, ending a run starting with 1999 in 1982.
This new record would incorporate some of the material the ensemble had worked up. But, the album would be an amalgam of solo projects as well, from an aborted triple album, to an off-the-beaten path project Camille, something of a female alter ego. The resulting album here would continue to demonstrate Prince’s agility with funk, soul, electro-pop, and rock styles, plus other styles besides.
But, along with songs with sexual themes (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”), and party songs (“Housequake”) for which he was known, Sign O’The Times adds yet another set of themes to his pallette – the state of the world according to Prince. And what does he see here on the album’s title track, as the world edged closer and closer to the end of the 20th Century?
This song is one that doesn’t balk on the anguish factor. Gone are the raspberry barets, with images of murder, drug abuse, gang violence, and even the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle taking their place. Also gone is the psychedelic sumptuousness of the arrangement and instrumentation, which was such an important part of his Around The World In A Day album he’d recorded with the Revolution two years previous.
Musically, the song is spare, with just the artist and his Fairlight synthesizer, plus its pre-loaded settings, and a Linn Drum (both stalwart artifacts from the 1980s – sign of the times, indeed) to accompany his talking blues vocals and his bluesy guitar playing. This was during a time when the trend was to keep every song as sonically airtight as possible. So, even if he uses the technology of the time in a pretty standard way, his approach to arranging that technology instrumentally is completely different.
One of the most striking things about this single was how stark this song is lyrically, holding his previous work in striking contrast in this respect as well. He seemed unafraid to frame his opinions, and his worries, about where the world, and the lives of those he knew and loved seemed to be headed.
Sociopolitical comment was not unprecedented in the world of soul and R&B by 1987. Perhaps this strain of music is best embodied by the work of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Marvin Gaye, and Sly Stone at the beginning of the previous decade, when Prince was still an avid music collecting teen. There is no doubt that the groundwork these artists laid down played into what Prince had built up for himself even before this record came out.
Yet, also in 1987, the overtly sociopolitical statements in mainstream pop of previous eras were beginning to wane, even if many of the lyrical concerns those elder artists tackled in their work were still very much contemporary to times of which Prince sings on this track. But, it’s not musical precedent that serves as the engine for this track in any case. It’s personal vision, even if that vision is a fairly bleak one for top 40 radio and the Billboard charts by the end of the ’80s.
Still (or perhaps tellingly), this track topped the R&B charts, and would be a spearhead track to a record accepted by many as being his masterpiece as far as his solo records without the Revolution were concerned. The song would make Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time list, achieving #304. Not too shabby. The album would be lauded across the board, making an impact as one of the releases of the 1980s to be compared to Exile On Main Street and the White Album in its ambition and musical scope.