This review originally ran in the May 1987 issue of Spin.
I guess you know what the problem with Prince is: He’s too good. Too bad, too. Because he’s so good he can do anything he wants, and sometimes he wants to do some really dumb stuff. And sometimes the dumb stuff he does works out to be the best stuff anybody’s ever done. Ever.
Now anybody else, after a debacle like Under the Cherry Moon had his career as a director/actor/auteur/love-god swirling down the toilet, nearly sinking his customarily brilliant album Parade in the process, would come out of their corner kind of cautious-like. Maybe a quick crossover step back toward somewhere in the exact very middle of Purple Rain terrain, something safe and sure. Something career-minded.
So what does Prince do? He takes a left, a hard left, and he does it laughing. Sign o’ the Times sounds so loose it could be nothing but outtakes — except nobody else’s outtakes would sound so strong, rock so hard, swing so free.
Most folks would kill for a groove like “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” — it’s that patented Prince prance of his, the strut that shook the butt of “Delirious,” of “Private Joy,” of so much of Dirty Mind — but too bad. Prince lets it skip on down the road a while, then he downshifts into something slow and lean and swampy, with guitar lines snatching around at each other somewhere near the bottom. It starts building, it starts cooking, it starts rising and lifting and raising; he brings back the Prince prance and stirs them together to see if it works — it works — and then he takes it all off the stove and sets it aside. The only sound that’s left is that of lesser mortals everywhere smiting their foreheads.
He’s too good, he’s too bad, he’s too much. Anybody else would have brought out one record, not two — I guess he gets sick of all those extra tunes cluttering up the studio — and nobody else would have put our their first single since Parade with what looks like a photo of the auteur in a halter top, miniskirt, and beaded garter. (Michael Jackson considers these things, of course, but he’s far too level-headed.) And as always, he’s letting us have more of a peek under his monogrammed silk sheets than we might even care for. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” runs down the type of seduction concept only Prince could come up with: She’d take her clothes off in front of him if he was her girlfriend, right? So how come she won’t just do it anyway? He’s never been happy unless he’s revealing himself one way or another, so he can’t keep from doing it here once more: “If I was your girlfriend, would you let me dress you? I mean, help you pick out your clothes before you go out?”
Sign o’ the Times sounds like a throwaway, a toss-off, a relaxed runback of last month’s bedroom tapes. From anybody else, it’d be indulgent; from Prince, it’s just more genius. He sounds as goofy and loose as he’s ever been, and lines like, “Baby, I can’t stand to see you happy / More than that, I hate to see you sad …” go slipping by without any special notice. He seems reconciled — for the moment — with who he is and what he is and even with what he isn’t. He’s dropped his most messianic urges, too, and that makes every moment that leans back in the direction of Dirty Mind and Controversy and 1999 all the easier. There’s nothing on Sign o’ the Times that’s as groundbreaking as Parade‘s “Girls & Boys,” but there’s a lot on Sign that’s as cool as “Kiss.” It doesn’t sound like he was trying to do the finest thing he’s ever done, it just sounds fine.