I really miss the old Prince, I mean not the Controversy-Dirty Mind one so much as the Sign o’ the Times one. That album was Prince at his best both commercially and critically. As his 9th album and first one without the Revolution, his fans had come to expect the unexpected from their Purple Hero. Sign o’ the Times was a music movie without the movie. It was a performance footage film, but it was it’s soundtrack that was a hit not, the film as in Purple Rain.
While not so Purple any more, Sign o’ the Times was recorded without the Revolution per se, however many of its members were still there including new ones like Atlanta Bliss on horns. The band was as tight as ever, so it did not matter so much that the Revolution was gone, as they were very much in spirit there.
All the things that made Prince’s music exciting seemed to converge on this album. The raw funk of ‘If I was Your Girlfriend’ was Prince at his androgynous best (the flip side of the single ‘Shockadelica’ was even funkier). In addition to the regular sex antics, there was the obligatory soul-searching on ‘The Cross’. Spiritual conflicts started as early as 1982’s 1999 with ‘Free’ and had become a musical theme on at least one song on every album since.
Whatever personal demons Prince was grappling with extended to social commentary. The album’s first single, the title track addressed urban crime, drug use and the fate of black males in American society. It was unusual hearing such serious subject matter coming from Prince, but his throwback rock style made it palatable and even funky. For every song laced with political or social commentary, there were two of the upbeat ‘I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man’ types.
It would be the mid tempo songs that expressed another element of Prince’s music that I looked forward to during the ’80s: his knack for oddly accessible experimentation. Unlike almost anyone else in music at the time Prince’s progressive songs manage to connect to a broad audience and be innovative at the same time. This to me remains his creative legacy, as very few artist can match that feat.
Songs like ‘Starfish and Coffee’ and ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ recalled Joni Mitchell while moving the concept of a funk ballad forward. There was something for everyone from James Brown inspired funk numbers (‘Housequake’) to smooth crooner (‘Adore’) and just about everything in between.
Of course ‘You Got the Look’ with Sheena Easton had become his biggest hit since Purple Rain, making Prince a household name once again. It was easy to hear Prince music from multiple sources during those times as his hit making machine was in full effect for other artists like Shelia E, Jill Jones, The Bangles and of course his own aborted project from that year the Black Album.
It wasn’t too many years after Sign o’the Times that Prince would no longer rule the pop charts. Instead he continued making innovate music, but clearly not as interesting as the years went on. As an artist, he’s not one to re hike old trails, but I do miss the unusual combination of trail blazing innovation + pop accessibility from the old Prince.