Friday, February 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Sign o' the Times" by Prince

Some albums have mixed critical receptions. On the other hand, some, like this, are afforded almost unanimous praise. For a critic to diss this album would be tantamount to a critic praising the Jonas Brothers: career suicide. Loving Prince as much as I do, it's nice to see the often-hostile critics railing to his defence. But this album was a grower for me - it took me a while to see what they found so worshipful about it.

Not all of this album but much of it is a wonderful testament to the powers of minimalism. That's a word used too often in relation to Prince, and his 'maximalism' is also something to behold (the symbol album he released in 1992 is as cluttered as it gets, but still wonderful), but what it means here is that he's developed a series of songs so strong that he knows they need only the barest of accompaniment to let them shine. For a studio wizard and instrumental genius, this is an odd legacy. But his most recent albums with the Revolution had been, on occasion, a bit OTT, so I think this simplicity was a breath of fresh air. Additionally, and more importantly, there's a sense of a genius pumping out great music at such a rate that all the album can hope to do is contain as much as it can in its four cupped hands. This is not just fanciful but realistic in light of this album's tortured genesis: it was a single and a double called Dream Factory, then a completely different single called Camille, then a triple (!) called Crystal Ball... then finally this. Much of what was left on the cutting room floor is still amazing, incredible stuff. To be on such an artistic roll... well, it's an honour to recieve whatever we can.

So why strip it down even further to a single? Well, I think that by the time Sign o' the Times rolled around, the albums' original impetuses had been so muddled that a focused collection was sacrificed in favour of sprawl. Sprawl can be great sometimes, but there are too many dry spots in an album that could have been juicy from start to finish. So this effort here is a way of reigning in the sprawl a little (but not completely) to create a bit more concentrated a release.

As a committed Prince fanatic, I've been dying to get to discussing his work. It's mostly the critical accolades that have me starting with this album, but I'd like to, with time, leap further into his oeuvre, eventually taking on the 3 CD opus Emancipation, which was critically maligned but which I love. I'm in no hurry to get to 1999, since in my opinion making a great single out of that album consists mostly of chopping the second halves off of each of the extended songs on the album (and binning 'Free' and 'Delirious). Of course, Prince has a habit of occasionally suing anyone who discusses him online... so, taking a deep breath and fearing for my freedom, let's dive right in...

Sign o' the Times

Side one
  1. Sign o' the Times (4:56)
  2. Housequake (4:42)
  3. The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (4:01)
  4. Forever in my Life (3:30)
  5. Slow Love (4:22)
Side two
  1. I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (6:29)
  2. Starfish and Coffee (2:50)
  3. If I Was Your Girlfriend (5:01)
  4. Adore (6:30)
Sign o' the Times: keep (side one, track one)

Apparently the title track was, oddly enough, one of the last minute additions to the album as it made its way through its strange journey from single to double to triple to double again. Its 'minimalist' feel sets the tone for the album musically, I suppose, but lyrically it rather sticks out, being a confused and rather silly take on world events (and horribly dated at the moment). It was an odd choice for a single. Why does it work as a composition? I guess really it all comes down to that stupid-silly bassline. The 'genius' of the Sign o' the Times album is, in my opinion, largely the way its incredibly simple musical parts somehow happen to be 'just right'. This song is barely even a demo, musically, but anything extra would just feel like clutter.

This track is no clarion call. After the politics of this song, it's all sex and love and typical Prince stuff. So it's really not the statement of purpose people see it as. Yet it is the title track, and it is a decent starting point for the rest of the album musically. So I'm sticking with Prince's instincts and letting this song open my album.

Play in the Sunshine: lose

Sign o' the Times is descended from an album that was meant to showcase the Revolution (or at least Wendy and Lisa) as true equals to Prince - his most collaborative effort yet. A 180 turn from communal to completely solo creates a work that is more than a little schizophrenic. This track, one of the collaborative ones, very simply tries too hard. Jogging along at a quick jaunt, with little bits tossed in all over the place, it's probably meant to impress but, to me anyway, just winds up confusing. It is, as the cliché goes, less than the sum of its parts.

Housequake: keep (side one, track two)

One of the most celebrated songs on the album, a bit of an icon for lovers of Prince-style funk, this song is a bit of a preview of the Black Album, consisting as it mostly does of party chants in a sped-up voice over a computer-generated funk groove. I love me some funk, and I love me some Prince-funk even more, but for some reason this song doesn't hit me the way it hits others. It feels like too many ideas with too little cohesion. It's tough to walk away from this song singing or humming anything, and it's tough to imagine getting down with much abandon on a dance floor to this song. Ultimately, it feels less like a funk song than an academic exercise in funk music. Though I realise that's a minority opinion.

It's odd, in light of what I've written above, to find me including this song. It was a close call between this and 'The Cross'. What tipped the scales in favour of 'Housequake' is the tempo - Prince's double mixes and matches tempos quite well; mine tends to err on the side of tempos mid- or less. So I needed a bit more funk, or at least uptempo stuff. I let 'Housequake' follow the midtempo opener, as side one track two, just to remind people that in theory an album can be a party, before going back to the slow head-bob.

The Ballad of Dorothy Parker: keep (side one, track three)

For an album hailed as experimental, a lot of the songs aren't overly experimental. This one is. They call it 'jazzy', but I'm not sure if that's exactly what it is. I'm not exactly sure what to make of the song's lopsided groove, but it's a great bed for an intriguing story (why do I never meet waitresses like that?). It's a great example of 'lead bass', and the bassline is inventive throughout, as are Prince's on-again-off-again background vocals. The whole song pulls you in as it confuses you, and that's what brings me back to it again and again. Let's just call it a genre unto itself.

Side one of my creation has a real sense of purpose and structure, but I think this song kind of merely fills in the blank in position three that existed. It's a bit of a jump from the carefree funk of 'Housequake' to the introspection of this track, but it's introspection from now on, and maybe the back-and-forth nature of my side one tells a story too.

It: lose

You get the feeling that this is the kind of song that Prince could write in his sleep. And perhaps he did. Sexual in tone, funk-pop in feel, it comes and goes, leaving very little in the way of an impression in the listener. It's not offensive or embarrassing, and it's not technically boring. It's just... well, it's filler, really. And in considering all the amazing stuff that got left on the cutting room floor when the album's final form was decided, that's a pity.

Starfish and Coffee: keep (side two, track two)

How often is a Prince song 'charming'? This one is - simple like a nursery rhyme, both musically and lyrically. The backward drums help give the song a vaguely 'psychedelic' feel while the lyrics discuss the eating habits of a mentally challenged schoolgirl (I wish I had made that last sentence up). It all works to give a sense of magic - or rather a sense of awe at being confronted with magic. Charming and, further, disarming - rare traits for Prince.

Prince puts this in the first half of his project; I put it in the second. My side two is all long songs except for this one, and I think it's a logical step in the progress from poppy to ballady that we see on side two (well, both sides, really). Plus, the album version of 'I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man' gets a bit wanky at the end. By putting this after it, as track two, I'm bringing back the pop.

Slow Love: keep (side one, track five)

It's tough being the second-best slow jam on an album. But not being as good a song as 'Adore' is no crime, and this song is still gorgeous. It's a bit less inventive than 'Adore', but its tried-and-true changes and melody serve merely to reassure the listener on his or her ride through the soft and luxurious folds of this song. Beautiful strings, in Eric Leeds one of the best saxophonists out there, and a level of assurance that turns the extremely relaxed tempo into a strength - all conspire to prevent the sometimes ridiculous lyrics from diminishing this song's natural beauty.

This isn't a side-closer on Prince's album: it's stuck in the middle of the poorly-sequenced side two. But slow jams are obvious side closers, and this one definitely fits the bill. So that's where it is for me, ending out side one with a sigh.

Hot Thing: lose

See above, re: 'It'. More accomplished than that song, because a bit more developed, it still shares its ultimate pointless libidinousness. For a man who makes an art form out of frankly sexual lyrics, it's amazing how boring his sex talk is when it's less than inspired. 'Hot Thing' takes a stripped-down structure typical of this album as a whole and keeps adding little bits here and there, many reminiscent of other Prince songs. It's funky but disjointed, and a surprising choice as a 'kind of single' (technically it was the b-side of 'I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man', but it's the one that got the dance remixes) on an album filled with better tracks. Oh, and it goes on too long.

Forever in My Life: keep (side one, track four)

Oddness. A drum machine, a vocal melody lifted directly from Sly and the Family Stone's 'Everyday People', nothing else at all. Yet the result is gorgeous, amazing, transcendent. A very real highlight of the album for me. How? Well, the devotional lyrics are good, not great (inspiring a bit, though certainly out of place in an otherwise libidinous side two), but that gorgeous melody, the amazing sounds of Prince harmonising with himself, the walking-on-clouds feeling of the drumbeat. Not to mention the absolutely genius idea of bringing in musical accompaniment just as the song is fading out... all told, another example of a masterwork rendered with only those parts necessary to bring out the songis charms organically. Prince's Fairlight & Linn sound would, by the 21st century, become old and cliché, but here (as on 'Kiss'), the master knows exactly what he's doing.

I'd love to keep this as a side closer, like Prince has it. But he's got four songs that can take that position, and I've only got two. So I make it the penultimate track on side one - position four, before 'Slow Love'. I think it fits well there, and I think letting this song's natural momentum collapse into saxy pillows makes sense too.

U Got the Look: lose

Stuck on the album at the last minute, and bearing all the hallmarks of forced commercialism, this track, it seems to me, is little more than a crass attempt to increase the album's popular appeal. Falling just shy of a number one hit, it can't have been anything but a success, measured on strict commercial terms. Yet I find the song cold and unlovable. I'm not even sure why, except that it rides its twelve-bar pop-by-numbers groove with its eyes closed, with no real melody (outside of Sheena Easton's chorus) and no musical adventurousness whatsoever. Prince's Camille vocals annoy, the lyrics are ridiculous (especially some of the rhymes), and the whole thing feels so forced and contrived that it just makes me want to have a bath. Odd that a completely synthesised album could exude so much humanity, but the relative lack of humanity in this song makes it stand out from the rest. And not in a good way.

If I Was Your Girlfriend: keep (side two, track three)

A rather lovely exercise in the musical genre this album creates, 'If I Was Your Girlfriend' is a rarity in a Prince song in having lyrics that steal the spotlight. With an amazing insight and ability to navigate logical twists and turns, Prince wonders how his girlfriend (sexual partner) would react to him if he were her girl friend (female confidante) as opposed to her boyfriend. Confusing stuff that was completely lost on the listening audience at the time, who saw it as another androgynous gender-bend and subsequently made it bomb as a single. How misunderstood this song is is clarified in Jay-Z's otherwise wonderful ''03 Bonnie & Clyde', where the amazing line (if I was your girlfriend,) 'would you run to me if somebody hurt you, even if that somebody was me?' is parroted with apparently zero understanding of its meaning. Prince himself, unfortunately, undermines the lyrics with a horny voice-over at the end that replaces all of the searching tenderness with bog-standard horn-dog drooling. Musically, it's funk-lite, simple like the rest of the album but melodically assured. with a beat you can describe as 'loping'. Mid-tempo at its best.

I knew I wanted this song on side two, but I wasn't quite sure where. Right before the show-stopper as track three is a pretty important place on a well-programmed album, and I think this song has the right strut to it to lead into 'Adore'.

Strange Relationship: lose

Apparently this song had been kicking around since 1982. Apparently, also, it's one of the hold-overs from the Wendy & Lisa album that got canned. In both cases, it's easy to recognise the song's vintage, which makes it feels like an outré throwback to earlier Prince eras (in particular Around the World in a Day). The song doesn't really go anywhere, relying instead on its twee musicality. In this particular case, it's tough to avoid the feeling that it got left on the shelf too long and passed a best-before date. There's nothing wrong with it, really. If it were an outtake surfacing on some bootleg, I'd hail it as an example of Prince's genius. But stuck in the middle of brighter lights (amazingly, it's the only song on side three that wasn't a single), it's just so... meh.

I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man: keep (side two, track one)

Like the track before it, this song sat on the shelf from 1982 till the 1987 release of this album. While initially it's hard to imagine why Prince would let such a brilliant pop song collect dust, it's tough to see which of the four albums Prince released in the meantime this would fit on (unlike 'Strange Relationship'). Strictly in the guitar-based 'power-pop' mould, where rock meets pop, it has little to do with the keyboard-based and often funky pop that made Prince a star. But it's irresistible, and Prince carries it off with absolute mastery. A tale of Prince rejecting a woman's advances, as he can see she is looking for more than just a quick night of sex, it's told over a simple guitar riff, plenty of handclaps and a sense of sheer momentum that keeps your ears glued to the speaker until... well, not until the end of the album version of this track, which unfortunatley fusses about for almost three minutes longer than it needs to. Pop songs are not six and a half minutes long... the sheer brilliance of this confection is not completely sullied by its overextended coda, but it is, well, dulled a bit by it.

I would love to put the three-and-a-half-minute 7" edit on the album instead of the full length version, but so far I've not trimmed any songs or replaced them with alternate versions, tempted though I've been. So I won't this time, either. I'll just let its long coda serve as a touch of 'experimentalism' on this album. Whatever. Anyway, Prince closes a side with this, whereas I see it as a natural side two opener - a quick burst of adrenaline after the sigh that concludes side one.

The Cross: lose

A simple little hard-rock lighters-aloft drone, 'The Cross' is a bland attempt at Christian proselytising. The structure is simple: do the whole song quiet, then repeat it all over again loud. I may sound dismissive, and I tend to prefer my music secular, but this is actually quite decent an accomplishment. The genre it's written in is one that Prince attempts so rarely that you forget how good he is at it. It's all pretty much writing-by-numbers, but it has a simple swaying effectiveness that makes you forgive its ultimate genericness.

It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night: lose

Every time I listen to this album, I ask myself, "why?" I mean, this is nine minutes of very, very accomplished live music. I'm sure that if I'd been in the audience the night this was recorded, it would have blown me away. But it's so very fish-out-of-water here. For one thing, the album was hardly in need of live-track 'padding', considering how much top material got cut from it. For another thing, the group-dynamic, jam-session feel is great, but it has nothing to do with the man-alone-in-a-studio vibe of the rest of the album. It's meant to be a goodbye to the Revolution, but I can't see why this is the appropriate place for it. Most importantly, at nine minutes it disrupts the flow, and just isolates 'Adore' from the rest of the album. Great riff, great musicianship, horrible Munchkins chant... mediocre song, awesome performance, wrong album...

Adore: keep (side two, track four)

As slow jams go, while on the surface they might all be the same, there's bland and generic... and then there's this. I defy anyone to listen to this song and not find it drop-dead gorgeous. Featuring what might be a sitar as its lead instrument and burying its principal melody under all kinds of vocal asides and little bits, and breaking down minutes before the song ends, it's a weird little track, but it has a warmth and emotional resonance that cuts through all of that and comes away an undisputed winner. Towards the end of the song, during the breakdown, there's a moment when Prince trills out the line 'You don't know what you mean to me, baby, baby' and, I will with a straight face claim, gives us probably the greatest five seconds of male vocals in the history of recorded sound. How's that for concluding your masterwork?

No question. This showstopper has to, well, stop the show. Final track. Like it could go anywhere else... what could follow it?
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