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Credit: Joel Bremer

Music

35 years on from Prince’s groundbreaking ‘Sign O’ The Times’

@TomTaylorFO

Prince bestrode the 1980s like a little colossus. His dominance was so valiant that even when it appeared that things were falling apart, his glittering purple armour was never chinked. In a few short years prior to Sign O’ The Times, his trusted band, the Revolution, had disbanded and his attempts to craft the alter ego ‘Camille’ had run aground without a release. None of these setbacks even came remotely close to hindering his progress. In fact, he barely even viewed them as setbacks.

His talent was simply bursting at the seams, and that made him inviolable to flippant little things like failed projects or not having a band. His only issue was his own unwavering perfectionism, and that’s the best achilleas heal in the book when you’re on a golden run. Through good grace, determination and pure awe-inspiring artistry, Sign O’ The Times not only kept that run going but, depending on who you ask, sailed it to its peak.

When the Revolution fell apart, most artists would have no choice but to enlist session musicians or search for a different band. However, Prince was unique—he had another option. The maestro was not only one of the greatest guitarists in history (an easy top-five by anyone’s standards), but he could play every instrument and invent a few others while he was at it too. Thus, in some ways, being on his own in the studio only made his monomaniacal pursuit of sonic perfection easier.

His only major assistance on the record came from his trusted sound engineer Susan Rogers. But Rogers even opines that her role was imposed upon by Prince from time to time, as she recalls: “He needed to be the alpha male to get done what he needed to get done.” That dogged sense carries through onto the record. In fact, very few albums have such a stamp of determined intent—there is a genuine feel that not a single note is compromised and that everything unfurled in singular frenzy rather than by the hand of a staggering committee.

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That results in innovations beyond the sampling and the Linn LM-1 that features heavily throughout as a rhythm section machine. Throughout the record, there are flashes that prove head-scratching in a musicological sense without straining away from being harmonious pop perfection. Psychedelic middle eight techniques crop up in the wrong place amid otherwise standard smooth soul songs, but the beauty is you’d barely notice if you weren’t prying beneath the glowing surface.

What comes across most now is how easy Prince found music in every department. His skill allowed for innovation, but that innovation was tempered by solid sensibilities. After all, his hero was Joni Mitchell so he was never like to throw in synths at random for the sake of sonic progression if it meant bending the soul of his songs out of place. That is the defining brilliance of this record—there are 16 songs and 80 minutes to get through, and not a second seems to falter, and that keeps it fresh even 35 years on when so many other albums from the era seem dated.