Published on February 9th, 2021 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
Prince – Sign o’ the Times Deluxe Set
The Prince Estate has released a thorough deluxe edition of one of his classic albums; Sign o’ the Times. It’s chock full of purple goodness!
In September the Prince Estate released another deluxe edition reissue of a classic Prince album. Sign ‘O” the Times (1987) is their most ambitious undertaking so far, comprising over 60 tracks of music spread out over 8 discs/13 LPs and 1 DVD of a New Year’s Eve concert. It also comes with a coffee table book of nicely presented photographs from that era, although I will not be reviewing the book itself. I tend to listen to music digitally, so I have only seen YouTube reviews of the book, but I do not have a physical copy of the deluxe edition myself. As a collectible it makes for a beautiful presentation, especially in vinyl, but I was never much of a collector. For me it is just about being able to hear the music. For people who listen to Prince though, it appears to be a nice set worthy of collecting, if you are willing to go for a hefty price tag.
The album starts off with the title track, which again, is better live than on the studio album. I have always been rather lukewarm about this song. The scattered politics of the lyrics, which just point out various, random events and presents a warning about drugs that seems straight out of a PSA (“In September my cousin tried reefer for the first time / Now he’s doing horse / It’s June), it fails to present a convincing socio-political portrait of American life in the 1980s. Live, however, when the band plays an extended drum section, the song kicks into high gear.
“Play in the Sunshine” is decent enough, but the album does not really get into a groove until “Housequake.” “Housequake is Prince doing what he does best: funk. The next song, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” is a great Prince ballad and really sets the tone of the album. The album was written during Prince’s relationship with his fianceé Susannah Melvoin, and it is the heartbreak songs that resonate the most. The heartbreak songs, especially the trilogy of “If I was Your Girlfriend,” “Strange relationship,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” are the album’s standouts for me. “Forever in My Life” excels in the concert movie, but falls a little flat on the studio album.
The album then ends with “Adore,” which is a decent enough song. Personally, I think “It’s Gonna’ Be a beautiful Night” is a nice show-stopping ender, and indeed in the concert DVD Prince does use it as the final song. “The Cross” I have never cared for, as it feels more like a standard and generic rocker. All in all, I would say it is definitely a great, but somewhat flawed, album. Not as structurally sound as some of his other work, perhaps a bit uneven in places, but certainly there are some great songs on here that rank among Prince’s best.
Then we get to the vault tracks. This was a prolific period during Prince’s creative evolution and he was producing songs at an exceptional rate. In fact, Prince originally proposed a triple album to Warner Brothers, which they rejected. It was a move by the company that ended up fracturing their relationship, leading Prince to act out in increasingly antagonistic ways towards them.
As for the songs themselves, there is a curious mix of good and bad in the vault tracks. “Witness 4 the Prosecution,” “Rebirth of the Flesh,” “Power Fantastic,” “Big Tall Wall,” “Soul Psychodelicide” (referenced in the song “Joy in Repetition,” but left unreleased until now), and the infamous “Wally” really stand out as great tracks. I say infamous in regards to “Wally” because engineer Susan Rogers has mentioned in interviews that Prince wrote it after his break-up with Susannah Melvoin, but the song proved so emotionally brutal and tough that he had her erase the original. The track here is a recreation Prince did with altered lyrics and more accompaniment, somewhat diluting the effect. But this version is itself still a stand-out track, so I cannot imagine how powerful and emotionally tough the original was. We only have Susan Roger’s word for it as the song has been erased for all time.
There are also a lot of experiments where it’s apparent why they were not released on the album. Experiments that are interesting to listen to, but end up as nothing more than extended funk jams and playing around by the band. There are also experiments that utterly fail, at least in my opinion, like some forays into gospel music. For one reason or another they were left off the final album and sometimes it is easy to see why, as they often do not fit the overall tone of Sign ‘O’ the Times. Although I admit “Witness 4 the Prosecution” would have made for a better B side than “La, La, La, He, He, Hee.”
If there is one major criticism to be made—other than the price tag—it is that the single mixes and edits album in this set do not serve much of a purpose, at least not for me. While I always appreciate more content, and in that regards I cannot fault them for including more songs, the singles and edited versions of the songs are not going to be tracks that I listen to on repeat. With Prince I prefer the longer and more extended versions of songs. But as I said, I cannot fault them too much for including extra material.
What follows is a star rating (out of 5) for each of the tracks on the multi-volume set. As with any review, keep in mind that these are based solely on my opinions. There is bound to be disagreements with which songs I like or dislike and how other people might view the material. And the track listing varies between CDs and LPs, with CDs averaging 7-9 songs per disc and vinyl averaging between 1-5 songs per LP. Because of that I just list them as whole, not per disc/LP.
Sign ‘O’ The Times ★★★
Play in the Sunshine ★★★
The Ballad of Dorothy Parker ★★★★★
Starfish and Coffee ★★★★★
Slow Love ★★★
Hot Thing ★★★★
Forever in My Life ★★★
U Got the Look ★★★★
If I Was Your Girlfriend ★★★★★
Strange Relationship ★★★★★
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man ★★★★★
The Cross ★★
It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night ★★★★
Single Mixes and Edits:
Sign ‘O’ The Times (Edit) ★★★
La, La, La, He He Hee ★★
La, La, La, He He Hee (Highly Explosive) ★★
If I Was Your Girlfriend (Edit) ★★★
Shockedelica (12” Inch Long Version) ★★★
U Got the Look (Long Look) ★★★
Housequake (Edit) ★★★
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (Fade) ★★★
Hot Thing (Edit) ★★★
Hot Thing (7 Minutes MoQuake) ★★★
I Could Never take the Place of Your Man (1979 Version) ★★★★
Teacher, Teacher (1985 Version) ★★★
All My Dreams ★
Can I Play With U? ★★★★
Wonderful Day (Original Version) ★★★
Strange Relationship (original version) ★★
The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (with Horns) ★★★
Witness 4 the Prosecution (Version 1) ★★★★★
Power Fantastic (Live in Studio) ★★★★★
And That Says What? ★★
A Place in Heaven (Prince Vocals) ★★★
Crystal Ball (7” Inch Mix) ★★★
Big Tall Wall ★★★★
NEVAEH NI ECALP A ★★★
A Large Room With No Light ★★
The Train ★★★
It Ain’t Over ‘till the Fat Lady Sings ★★
Everybody Wants What they Don’t Got ★★
Soul Psychodelicide (1986 Master) ★★★★
The Bell ★★★
Adonis and Bethesda ★★
Forever in My Life (Early Vocal Run-Through) ★★★
Crucial (Alternate Lyrics) ★★★
The Cocoa Boys ★★★
When the Dawn of the Morning Comes ★★
Witness 4 the Prosecution (Version 2) ★★★★
It Be’s like that Sometimes ★★
Emotional Pump ★★★
Rebirth of the Flesh (Original Outro) ★★★★
Cosmic Day ★★
Walkin’ in Glory ★
I Need A Man ★★
Promise to be True ★★
Jealous Girl ★
Big Tall Wall (Version 2) ★★★
A Place in Heaven (Lisa Vocal) ★★
Wonderful Day (12” Inch Mix) ★★
Strange Relationship (1987 Shep Pettibone Club Mix) ★★
Live in Utrecht, June 20, 1987
Rather than listing each track individually I will rate the album as a whole, since it is part of one single concert. While there are some mixing and audio issues with some of the songs, especially with some instruments not coming in as clearly as others in certain parts, overall this is a great concert to listen to. A good mix of the new material from “Sign ‘o the Times” and some of Prince’s classics. It always interesting to hear Prince concerts and I am glad they have decided to release one per deluxe edition. ★★★★
DVD: Live in Paisley Park, Chanhassen, MN, December 31, 1987
As with the audio concert, I will rate this as a whole.
The original concert movie, released in a limited run in theatres (I was lucky enough to see at the Broadway Theatre when it briefly played there), has suffered from rights issues concerning distribution. In the United States it was not distributed officially, yet here in Canada and in Europe and the United Kingdom, we had access to the DVD. As such I did see it quite a few times since its initial release. I was glad they decided to not bother untangling the rights issues that mess up distribution of the original concert movie. I enjoyed watching a new concert.
While the editing is not as precise and tight as the concert movie, which was edited to follow a basic narrative, it was also good to hear songs performed that were not on the original concert movie. The concert ends with an extended jam with Miles Davis on “It’s Gonna’ Be a Beautiful Night,” which goes on far too long. The song is only interesting because of the obvious tension between Prince and Davis. Davis, while undoubtedly a jazz legend, and his duet with Prince on the vault track “Can I Play With U?” is actually really good, seems utterly disinterested in co-operating with Prince or the band.
Overall, a good concert, even if a few of the songs felt lackluster. The concert is over 2 hours, and I believe was at the end of the tour, so the band’s energy ebbs and flows at times. Particularly with some of the classic songs from Purple Rain when it is apparent that they are tired of having to do 3-year-old material. But still, a good concert nonetheless. ★★★★
Sign ‘O’ the Times ★★★
U Got the Look ★★★★
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man ★★★★
Concluding thoughts and overall rating for the set: As far as deluxe editions go, this set was the best of the releases by the Prince Estate so far. Admittedly a bit more expensive, which is why I am not reviewing the book and presentation (but from what I have seen on YouTube unboxing videos it does look good), and there are some song selections that are not appealing to me (“Everybody Want What They Don’t Got” sounds like a sitcom theme song to me), there is a surplus of material here that will take most listeners quite a while to go through and a lot of it is interesting to listen to in order to understand a bit better Prince’s creative process. The Prince Estate does give you enough bang for your buck. ★★★★