(October 7, 2020). If there was ever a reminder of just how prolific the late Prince’s hidden music vault is – and how much of it we didn’t get to experience during his lifetime (despite the many rumors of its existence) – it was the September 25 release of the Super Deluxe version of his landmark 1987 opus Sign O’ The Times.
Available in multiple formats, including a huge 13-LP vinyl box set with limited edition vinyl singles, and an 8-CD box set, SOTT Super Deluxe comes with over 8 hours-worth of music recorded during one of Prince’s most creative periods between 1979-87 (mostly after 1985). Both of those physical formats also contain a DVD of Prince performing live in concert at his Paisley Park studios in Chanhassen, MN on December 31, 1987.
All of the music is also available in streaming formats like Spotify, TIDAL and Apple Music, and the Prince Estate also made six of the songs available through pre-release on YouTube in the months leading up to the album’s September 25 debut (yes, fellow fans, we know Prince would’ve never allowed it, but let’s go with this blessing since it’s here).
Simply put, for the late Prince’s ever-hungry legion of fans, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
Who among the many artists that are no longer with us – besides Prince himself – could be credited with an album containing more than 40 previously unreleased tracks (45 to be exact), plus remastered versions of the original 1987 album along with remixes, short and long versions, B-sides of singles, original or alternate takes, songs intended for others, and a live concert album to boot?
To put this into proper perspective, Prince – or more accurately, his estate – has released more “new” music since his April 2016 passing than contemporary superstars Rihanna, Beyoncé and Adele have released, combined, in that same time frame. The Super Deluxe versions of Purple Rain (released in 2017), 1999 (2019) and Sign O’ The Times alone boast nearly 70 previously unreleased tracks between them (including some songs previously available only through bootlegs or which saw the light of day on other people’s albums).
Two weeks ago upon the release of SOTT Super Deluxe Edition, former Warner Bros. A&R executive Michael Howe, who has served as full-time archivist for Prince’s estate since 2017, told Rolling Stone magazine that he’s practically been living inside Prince’s enormous musical vault since the artist’s untimely passing. To do Sign O’ The Times justice, he focused solely on the material that was recorded during that album’s creative period (1985-87), even though some of the music was never really intended for SOTT.
More specifically, the material was culled from several late-1986 projects, including Dream Factory, the album Prince was working on – and finished – with his band The Revolution before he dissolved them in October of that year.
And then there were projects like Camille – an album named for Prince’s androgynous alter-ego, and the planned triple-vinyl album Crystal Ball, which Warner Brothers convinced Prince to whittle down to what eventually became the double-LP Sign O’ The Times. Note: the 1986 Crystal Ball is not to be confused with the 1998 triple-CD compilation release bearing the same title but credited to Prince’s love symbol name and consisting of an almost entirely different set of songs (many of which were recorded between 1993-96).
Fast forward to today, going on five years post-Prince, and we get this mammoth posthumous release in Sign O’ The Times – Super Deluxe edition. The original SOTT was already considered by critics to be among Prince’s best albums – if not THE best. Just days before the Super Deluxe release, Rolling Stone listed the original at No. 45 in its updated rankings of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, an improvement over its previous ranking (No. 93 in both the 2003 and 2012 rankings). Only Purple Rain (No. 8) ranks above it.
This blog generally agrees with the praise heaped on the original double-vinyl SOTT album, but we certainly weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to appraise this heavily augmented version. And what better vehicle than with our 3 Old Guys album-review series, where our three resident bloggers (who are well into their 50s) give their opinions about legendary albums from the past (and, in this case, the present).
All three of us – Dean Michaels, Bloomberg and yours truly, DJRob – are wannabe A&R execs transported from a long-ago era who were blessed with the gift of hindsight. So two of us elected to focus our reviews by “assembling our own” new Prince albums using what we considered to be the best “new” material on Super Deluxe, based on our opinions of course.
The third Old Guy elected to do a more comprehensive review of the first three CDs consisting of mainly previously available material and it, too, is a must-read!
There’s a lot to unlock here, so grab your favorite purple drink, pull up a chair and read on as Three Old Guys take on Sign O’ The Times – Super Deluxe edition.
Old Guy DJRob:
When Old Guy Bloomberg came up with the idea of assembling our own Prince albums using the best new material on Super Deluxe, he suggested maybe using 40-60 minutes worth of music for the equivalent of a single album.
I soon found that to be an incredibly daunting task – trying to reduce most of the four hours of new music to one hour to fit a traditional album size. So I opted for creating a double album, which still doesn’t do the complete collection justice, but clearly subscribes to the more-is-better theory (sorry, Bloomy).
I assembled an album of funkier, jazzy tracks for “Disc 1,” and a more pop and soul-leaning playlist of tracks for “Disc 2.” A corresponding Spotify playlist appears at the end.
Disc 1 – The Funky Jazz Sessions:
The funky set begins with “Can I Play With U?,” Prince’s collaboration with jazz legend Miles Davis for an album that never materialized. According to Prince archivist Michael Howe, it was the only one of several songs in the vault that were actually completed. The others were unfinished products, which Howe thankfully spared us (and Prince’s legacy) from the indignity of “finishing” them for Super Deluxe. Oh, and if that “noooo!” you hear Prince yell at the end of this song sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same yelp he used to begin “Alphabet St.,” the first song from his 1988 Lovesexy LP.
The instrumental “It Ain’t Over ‘Til The Fat Lady Sings” is a playful number with several tempo changes and horn bursts recorded by Prince and Revolution members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. It recalls some of the best freestyle jazz this side of Miles and Coltrane (thanks to The Revolution’s newer secret weapons in saxophonist Eric Leeds and a trumpeter known as Atlanta Bliss). Some interesting dog barks (reminiscent of the famous “Sign O’ The Times” single’s B-side “La La La, He He Hee”) are looped in to add to the fun.
Aaaa-aaa-uhh-aaahhhh! “Blanche” – Prince’s main refrain throughout this all-out funk jam is that guttural shout that begins the tune. Otherwise, it’s about a girl named Blanche and a dude named Stanley and is a minimalistic exercise in Prince’s funky rhythm guitar playing, with live drums that abruptly slow to a crawling pace near the end before our naughty Prince finally let’s out an exasperated “fuck it, Blanche” at the end. Quick: name at least three other tunes in which Prince dropped f-bombs!
The underlying synth that provides the subtle foundation for the funky “The Cocoa Boys” evokes the intro to “U Got The Look” – the biggest pop chart hit from the original SOTT album. “The Cocoa Boys,” however, is a funkier, slower groove that Prince intended for the abandoned battle-of-the-bands musical The Dawn, in which the band The Coco Boys (alternate spelling intentional) were characters. While The Dawn was ultimately abandoned, Prince later revisited the musical’s concept for the 1990 film Graffiti Bridge. Outstanding horns again come courtesy of Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss.
“Visions” is a beautiful piano solo by Lisa Coleman and is the stuff that classic soul album interludes were made of. This cut could have easily filled an album by Stevie Wonder or Earth Wind & Fire in the mid-1970s. The story goes that Prince commissioned Lisa to create an opening piece to the abandoned Dream Factory album, and it later saw the light of day on a limited edition bonus disc of Wendy & Lisa’s third album Eroica in 1990. Why weren’t those two artists bigger again?
Prince wrote the funky guitar-and-brass driven “Emotional Pump” for his idol, folk-pop singer Joni Mitchell, who turned it down because it “didn’t match her style.” The song is a bit provocative with lyrics reminiscent of the obfuscation of the mother/child/lover relationship Prince introduced in “I Wanna Be Your Lover” seven years earlier.
“Rebirth of the Flesh” is another anthemic funk jam, with off-beat drum hits that ironically contradict the song’s opening line: “kick drum pounds on the two and four.” But here we also get new Prince phrases to add to our vernacular, like “souli-a-colia” as sung by the artist’s sped-up voiced alter-ego Camille. The song was intended for the Camille album – and later Crystal Ball – before being removed for the pared down SOTT in 1987. Too bad, because this would’ve had everybody “jamming to the new boogie cool” back then. Still would today!
“Wally” is an odd song that gets its charm from just that, being odd. The lyrics are one side of a dialogue between Prince and Wally Safford, his real-life bodyguard and friend whose eyeglasses (and girlfriend) Prince admires before asking to borrow them (the glasses) for a party he’s attending. “La-la-la-di-da” is the anthem the Purple One chooses to invoke here as he laments the then-recent loss of his own girlfriend (Susannah Melvoin – twin sister of Wendy and inspiration for “Wonderful Ass” several years earlier). But the song’s real greatness is in the coda, where the added horns (by Leeds and Bliss) and Prince’s screaming guitar take us to the climax!
More jazz ensues with “In a Large Room With No Lights,” a song that was originally (and mercilessly) titled “Life Is Like Looking For A Penny In A Large Room With No Light” and was slated to be included in the original tracking of Prince & the Revolution’s 1986 Dream Factory. It was shelved before Prince disbanded the group that October. However, it saw life in a July 2009 streamed performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to see him perform live…never got the opportunity.
The closing track on my jazz/funk list is the melodic “Train” – Prince’s understated falsetto starts the proceedings as his multi-tracked vocals are stacked to fill in the gaps. He recorded this song for the abandoned Prince & the Revolution album Dream Factory in July 1986, but it later saw life in a version by Mavis Staples on her first Paisley Park album, Time Waits For No One, to which Prince contributed four songs. Here, the original Prince version isn’t anything exceptional, it just feels like a great album closer, so I’m making it the last track on this first “disc” of my assembled imaginary Prince album.
As a bonus, here are both Prince’s and Mavis’ versions of “Train” for your listening pleasure (and comparison).
Disc 2 – The Pop/Soul Stuff:
“All My Dreams” might have served as the defacto theme song from The Revolution’s abandoned Dream Factory album (the title track of which is missing here). ”All My Dreams” was recorded in April 1985 on the same day as “Kiss” and, in my opinion, is more interesting than that No. 1 hit. Prince’s distorted, spoken-word ad-libs in the song’s middle section seem unnecessary, but his sexual innuendo does add to the song’s multiple personalities. Wendy and Lisa provide backing vocals, with Wendy directing a line at Lisa – just like old times – before the musical proceedings build to a crescendo and a surprise cold finish.
“Wonderful Day” is more pop recorded during the 1986 Dream Factory sessions. There are two versions – a 12” mix with prominent backing vocals from Wendy and Lisa, and a shorter one without. I’m going with the 12-inch, if for no other reason than the nostalgia it brings and the extra parts that make it 7:34 minutes of pure Revolution-ary fun. And yes, by now you’ve probably guessed, I was one of those who was butt-hurt when Prince & The Revolution broke up later in ‘86.
Prince originally tracked the soul ballad “Crucial (Alternate Lyrics)” on September 13, 1986, but it was omitted from SOTT (in favor of the now-legendary “Adore,” long considered one of Prince’s best ballads by R&B fans). An alternative version of “Crucial” was eventually included on the 1998 release of Crystal Ball. While it is not quite “Adore,” “Crucial” is a nice substitute on this fantasy DJRob-assembled album.
“Eggplant” is one of the catchiest bops on Super Deluxe. This funny ditty should’ve seen the light of day back in ‘87, especially with lines like “ask her religion, she’ll say ‘swell’” and “Guinness couldn’t count all the men she’s had.” Of course, whatever sexual metaphor Prince had in mind with this song couldn’t have predicted the universal phallic symbol its titular fruit/vegetable would become decades later in the smartphone age ( 🍆 ). “Eggplant” is one of a handful of songs to be re-engineered in 2020 by Niko Bolas specifically for Super Deluxe, but maintained as close to the original mixes as possible.
“Everybody Want What They Don’t Got” is a throwback slice of late 1960s-sounding pop-funk a la Sly & the Family Stone, one of Prince’s well known influences. The song’s only downside is that – true to 1960s’ pop form – it barely clocks at more than two minutes. You’ll want much more than that on first listen and you’re likely to play it on repeat…as I certainly have.
The psychedelic new-waviness of “Cosmic Day” could’ve filled the funk side of my assembled album, but its melodic backdrop and Prince’s sped-up Camille vocals make this a pure pop confection. “Cosmic” was recorded in November 1986 between the Camille and Crystal Ball sessions, the albums of which never fully materialized. Too bad it never made the final cut of SOTT, but thankfully we get to hear it now.
It goes without saying that I was a huge fan of Prince & the Revolution back in the day, so any song that employs the full services of the Revolution’s original members plus Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss, will get love here. “Witness 4 The Prosecution” does just that. Wendy’s sister Susannah even joins the fun with her backing vocals. This rollicking jam was recorded in March and April 1986 as Prince was scaling the charts with “Kiss” and completing scenes for Under the Cherry Moon. It was intended for Dream Factory but scrapped when Prince disbanded the group.
With “A Place In Heaven” you get choices. You get the option of Prince’s lead vocals or those of Revolution member Lisa Coleman. With Prince, you get his trademark falsetto, one Lisa likely used as a guide for her rendition (or maybe it was vice versa…Lisa did co-write the song). Coleman, with her partner Wendy backing, brings a vulnerability to hers that charms. I also envisioned the reverse-spelling/reverse-vocal “Nevaeh Ni Ecalp A” by Lisa as a great segue from the original (reminiscent of “Darling Nikki’s” classic finish), so it follows as part of a “medley” on my imaginary Disc 2.
A jubilant slice of aerobic-paced gospel-pop follows with “When The Dawn of The Morning Comes,” a song that’s easily the fastest track on the album, clocking in at nearly 150 beats-per-minute. This high-speed bop from the abandoned 1986 musical The Dawn shows Prince’s unique ability to meld together funk, pop, soul, disco and gospel – all in one track.
But if “Dawn of the Morning” was Prince dipping his toes into the gospel music pool, then “Walkin’ In Glory” is him diving full in, chest-first. Another testimony to Prince’s faith, “Glory” is nearly five-and-a-half minutes of the purple one offering his praises to the Lord and asking for His forgiveness, which he’s assured of getting. Recorded in December 1986, this glorious track includes the talented Sheila E. on drums.
Honorable Mention: “Power Fantastic” – “Bobby?, everybody? Ready? Ok, um, listen, starting with the piano we’re gonna tune up…there are no mistakes this time, this is the fun track. It might not be the one we keep, but play anything you want…go with it.” That was Prince – the band leader, producer and (sometimes) patriarch – calmly reassuring Revolution drummer Bobby Z and the rest of the band in this track’s first minute before Lisa Coleman’s piano introduces what is easily one of the best of the 45 “previously unreleased” songs on Super Deluxe.
Actually an edited studio version of this song appeared on The Hits/The B-Sides in 1993. But this one is a live in-studio recording that shows The Revolution at its pure unfiltered best, leaving this listener to wonder how Prince came to fire the band just months after recording so much material with them. The only explanation I can conjure is that Prince was simply ready to move in a new direction…one that didn’t include Wendy, Lisa and the others.
Speaking of new direction, I’m squeezing “Power Fantastic” into “Disc 1” of my imaginary two-disc reduction I’m calling All My Vinyl Dreams, a nod to Dream Factory and to my longing for a Prince & The Revolution reunion that never was.
Here’s the track list for “All My Vinyl Dreams,” released in DJRob’s mind on October 6, 2020, and to the public never…
Vinyl Disc 1:
- “Can I Play With U?” (feat. Miles Davis) 6:29
- “It Ain’t Over ‘Til The Fat Lady Sings” 2:21
- “Blanche” 5:36
- “The Cocoa Boys” 6:06
- “Visions” 2:08
- “Emotional Pump” 4:59
- “Rebirth of the Flesh” 5:28
- “In A Large Room With No Lights” 3:27
- “Power Fantastic” 7:18
- “Train” 4:18
Vinyl Disc 2:
- “All My Dreams” 7:23
- “Wonderful Day” 3:47
- “Crucial (Alternate Lyrics)” 6:14
- “Eggplant 5:18
- “Everybody Wants What They Don’t Got” 2:08
- “Cosmic Day” 5:39
- “Witness 4 the Prosecution” 3:59
- “A Place In Heaven”/“Nevaeh Ni Ecalp A” 5:18
- “When The Dawn of The Morning Comes” 6:17
- “Walkin’ In Glory” 5:14
And now let’s see what the other old dudes have to say.
Old Guy Bloomberg:
HOLY HELL you guys, this immense offering from THE VAULT (and from beyond this mortal Earth) done near broked my brain! Over 3 ½ hours of new music – like, full completed songs! – or, the equivalent of 4-5 standard-length LPs; and that’s not including the single b-sides, of which I have passing knowledge alone.
Prince was simply exploding with songs around this period, the songs further exploding with ideas, always tempering his effortless tunefulness with ideas eccentric or even occasionally downright annoying; his (stellar) band was growing larger, with horns especially more prominent in the arrangements – often playing in odd, harsh post-New Wave intervals that add further sonic densities to a sound that was already HUGE.
Simply put, there’s just too much going on here for me to easily grasp everything – as proven by my years-long grappling with the original SOTT double-album itself, a full 25% or more of which I underlooked in 1987, and for years thereafter. (Yes, I’d just turned 20 and knew-it-all; and yes, I’ve belatedly come more fully ‘round to the original. And yes, immersing myself repeatedly in this treasure trove of contemporaneous works for the last ten days obviously was a part of that, of course it was, shut up already, damn.)
This is a huge buffet of musical dishes, unique and idiosyncratic, it takes time to swallow, and much longer to fully digest. But I’ve shortlisted enough tracks to already assemble a superior normal-length LP (or two), so lemme take a fairly perfunctory (and incomplete) inventory of what we have, and I’ll finalize my selection afterwards. So here we go, as usual, let’s have a listen!
Okay, first let me talk about the two biggies here. “La La La, He He Hee”, previously released as a B-side of something, was a worthy contribution to the venerable “Dog-Funk” canon (as carried from Rufus Thomas and George Clinton forward to Snoop and beyond) with its great baying-hound sample/imitation. Here, it’s accompanied by the uncut “Highly Explosive” 10:31 version, and damn! it jams, hearkening back to the lengthy workouts on The Time’s early releases.
The other extendo-epic offering here, 12:36 of Kool jazz-electro entitled “Soul Psychodelicide” begins with Prince unaccompanied screaming for “ICE CREEEEAMMM!!” and gets better, though that title chant – “…it’s a helluva thang!” – does wear.
Now for the slow sexxxy ones: “Adonis and Bathsheba” adds beautiful churchified harmonies to smouldering Eddie Hazelisms and a ticklish brass part; “Power Fantastic (Live in Studio)” incorporates a free-form intro (“…Just trip with it, there are no mistakes,” the leader instructs) and orchestration that recalls the post-bop Blue Note sound of the ‘60s. Prince’s slow ones are frequently my least favourite tracks on an album (something in my hard-wiring that resists them), but these two are winners.
Some genre-hopping around here to talk about, including excursions into hip-hop (“Rebirth of the Flesh,” all huge drums and Prince-of-Rock riff) as well as go-go (“The Ball”).
“There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool” twists its expected R&B changes around expressive reggae rhythms and cute horn-insinuation; some expected psychedelia in “Crystal Ball” (soft) and “Big Tall Wall”(hard), with their incense-ual instrumentation (i.e. tablas/sitar/swirly strings, plus Stax horns for the latter). And “Walkin’ in Glory” rocks the Gospels for a frenzied 5:14 full of escalating, ecstatic rant’n’ravin multiple Princes (plus the estimable Sheila E.) turning the church into the dancefloor, or a rocking party, or the bedroom…and really, aren’t they all the same place, an approximation of Heaven on Earth to help us get through this thing called LIFE? (Don’t ask me.)
Hey, we also have a collaboration among giants! Miles Davis, himself a Prince (of darkness), adds his inimitable trumpet musings (overdubbed, multitracked, sometimes muted, sometimes not, always funky) throughout “Can I Play With U?” Opening with “Darling Nikki” feedback-squall (surely relished by heavy-metal aficionado Miles), the first half swings in an ”Eye Know/Dig U Better Dead” manner; then a melancholy brass sigh, and it all becomes a bit formless, with mini-solos from our leader on various instruments, ending on Miles making raspy “blublublu” noises. As a world-historic meeting of geniuses two full generations apart, it’s an essential inclusion, even if the final result kinda loses the plot, songwise.
Now, poptoons! The joyous “Wonderful Day” (3:47, opening track CALLED IT) mixes its fractured funkbeats (think “Tambourine”) with some Styxian synth-pomp and a great piano part, plus additional lyrical-continuity with “…Beautiful Night” and “The Ball”. “A Place In Heaven” is a sad waltzing lullabye, just Prince alone with cheap rhythm-box and keys. “Promise To Be True” and “Teacher, Teacher” are nostalgic callbacks to the Artist’s early ‘80s new-wave sound. (The delightful original 1979 version of “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” – single length, without the long instrumental passages – invites further comparison with the old days; but as an anachronism, I’m rendering it ineligible for inclusion in my final album.)
And finally, “Cosmic Day” is hard-rocking bubblegum, with a riff like in George Harrison’s “What Is Life” doubled by a “Tra-la-la-la” refrain that’s sped up to near-chipmunk range. Absolutely exhilarating number, one that would’ve made for a better hypothetical Bangles cover than “Manic Monday” (even).
OK, what else? Well, let’s see…Built on an unceasing locomotion loop, “Train” chugs forward, Prince in falsetto throughout, asking Babe to either 1) return his :heart: or 2) leave 4ever on the morning train to Santa Fe. (Maybe she’s one of Dionne Warwicke’s friends!)
Some *seriously* high notes at the finish of this one. Yow! Next, “Eggplant.”
EGGPLANT! Who can resist a Prince original with that title, especially when it incorporates a surprising chord change reminiscent of Stevie’s “Power Flower” to convey its warped reproductive PSA? The leader invokes his alter-ego “Camille” in “Shockadelica,” a descriptive title, huge syndrum beats and dentist’s-drill guitar. (Prince’s guitar heroics are plentiful throughout this material, whether taking a spotlight solo or just colouring the mix with lascivious tones; and I fully approve.)
We also got a few instrumental oddities, all barely more than a minute or two. “And That Says What?” and “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Fat Lady Sings” are cartoon-jazzy in the Zappa/Beefheart mould, hyperactive horns and exaggerated rhythm and tempo shifts that surely inspired the likes of Fishbone. “Colors” is 1:01 of new-age guitar: nice, pointless, harmless. “Visions”, on the other hand is a fully realized solo piano composition (or improvisation?), elegantly brooding, neither classical nor jazz really, just…nice
And there are still other weirdo concoctions, “Cocoa Boys” and “All My Dreams,” and “Wally” and “In A Large Room With No Light” and others. I never mentioned the gender-benderers “Jealous Girl” and “I Need A Man,” or even fully investigated the lyrics. And ultimately, I’m not entirely content with my painful selection – how can I be, when I’m leaving out twice as much remarkable stuff as is included?
But I’m still proclaiming it “a flawed masterpiece, and the best conceptual album of the year!” – or, at least until DJRob and RetroDawg unveil their own assemblages! Bigger picture, of course, is that this huge trove of tunes will be kicking my ass for quite awhile. (A very white ass, I’ll note – although I did sport Princely purple toenails for a day in 2013, courtesy of my young niece’s paint set.)
Rest in Power, Prince Rogers Nelson, thank you, we miss you more than ever.
Bloomberg’s album title: “Crystal Walls & Big Tall Balls,” released February 31, 1987…
- “Wonderful Day” 3:47,
- “Train” 4:18
- “Power Fantastic” 7:18
- “Cosmic Day” 5:39
- “There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool” 3:48
- “Walkin’ In Glory” 5:14
- “Big Tall Wall” 5:58
- “And That Says What” 1:39
- “Eggplant” 5:18
- “Crystal Ball” 3:29
- “La La La, He Hee Hee” 10:31
And now here’s a review of the previously available songs by Old Guy Dean Michaels (a/k/a “Retrodawg”):
I am a sucker for a double album. In my personal list for greatest albums of all time, there are four two-fers in my top twenty. Perched at No. 6 on my list is Prince’s Sign O’ the Times. In my estimation it is the greatest double-album of all time. It is also the best album of the 1980s.
On Friday September 25, 2020, this illustrious album was re-released in various permutations. The obvious version on my wish list would be the 8-CD/1-DVD version but this was not in the budget. I purchased the 3-CD version with the remastered album and a third disc of 7-inch single versions, 12-inch extended versions and B-sides.
In my view, the original CD version has always needed to be remastered. Unlike a lot of early Prince CDs this one never sounded all that great, sonically speaking. My ears were dying for a mix that would massage them as well as satisfy my Prince jones. After the brickwalled unveiling of the Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup the week before, I was not optimistic. In fact, I was so afraid this same brickwalling was going to happen to SOTT that I put off listening to the physical product for a day. Instead, I listened via my smartphone and a powered speaker. But more on that later.
In 1987, the general public didn’t realize what a Frankenstein monster this album was. I’m not going to fill in the gory details, but this release is an amalgamation of many different projects Prince was working on. His record company had already turned down a triple-vinyl album compromise that Prince had come up with. This interference was one of the many daggers in their relationship that culminated with Prince becoming the Artist Formerly Known as Prince in the early 1990s.
Still, it is hard to argue with an executive decision that results in a masterwork such as this. Prince is clearly at the top of his game on SOTT. There is no chaff here, only some of the best music ever put on tape.
The party begins with the title cut. Mr. Nelson is starting us off with an updated version of ‘70’s street funk. Imagine Ernie Isley or maybe Eddie Hazel playing guitar on There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
“Play in the Sunshine” follows, and it is a brew that only Prince could concoct. “Housequake” explodes in your ears like popcorn, somewhere between P-Funk and the Ohio Players with electronic drums. Concluding the first vinyl side is “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” This is less about the grand dame of the Algonquin Round Table and more about one version of Prince’s dream girl, who apparently likes adroit bass work.
Vinyl Side 2 starts with “It,” which screams 80’s as loudly as anything contained on this album. “Starfish and Coffee” moves in with an alarm clock that signals that the focus is changing, in this case to a poppy dreamscape that lulls you in with its good vibes. “Slow Love” is Prince as soul man. Here he is more likely to follow the Russell Thompkins, Jr. or Eugene Record mold than Teddy Pendergrass, but he’s smooth as silk and the girl is doing her walk of shame before she realizes she’s been had.
Her epiphany comes with “Hot Thing.” This is the nastiest (as opposed to dirtiest) funk that Prince has ever released. The groove on the bottom is causing the girl to shake her groove thang while the horns on top is biting at her ears. After that workout Prince ends this portion of the program with “Forever in My Life,” which proves that electronic drums and acoustic guitars can occupy the same landscape.
If you own this on record, or like me on CD, this is when you would have to change your software. If you own the cassette (like I originally did), this is where you would flip it over. Like the first platter, this vinyl (Side 3) starts off with a top-10 hit, “U Got the Look.” Here Prince is accompanied by Sheena Easton, one of his favorite muses. Next comes Prince alter-ego Camille on “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Camille was a voice-distorted Prince and there is a good deal of work from the abandoned 1986 project bearing that title that appears on the Super Deluxe edition. “Strange Relationship” is next and occupies that sweet spot between R&B and synth pop, which Prince could channel effortlessly at that time.
The side-closer and one of the greatest songs on the album is “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” It is one of the very few songs in his catalog that could be classified as Power Pop. I’m thinking “When You Were Mine” might be the only other candidate. Oops, I just thought of “I Wish You Heaven” from the Lovesexy album, but I am not going to edit.
The final vinyl side opens with another of Prince’s greatest rockers, “The Cross.” There has always been a small but obvious Christian corner to his lyrics and philosophic point of view, but only in this song was it put on display with such beauty. This song had me before the sitar (real or synthesized) started to do fills.
Next comes the live “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night,” which is the only obvious contribution by The Revolution (along with the Flying Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz). This is one of the funkiest tracks on which the Revolution ever appeared.
At the end we have another of Prince’s Thom Bell-influenced soul ballads. However, without taking anything away from “Adore,” which itself is a fine tune, Prince could never top “International Lover” (from 1999). That one is the pinnacle of Prince waxing all Stylistics and Delfonics on us. “Adore” thus concludes the album proper.
Disc 3 is devoted to all the side hustle that was put out back in the day. As has been the norm with these Warner Bros. Prince box sets, the person in charge clusters all the different versions of the same song together in the sequence. It is not the easiest way to listen to all this material if you’re so inclined. I have found it easier to rearrange by the physical medium that was originally used.
So, I put the 45 or cassette single versions up front with the album songs first and the two B-Sides following. “La La La, He He Hee” and “Shockadelica” are both worthy, but it’s easy to see why either didn’t appear on the original album. The former appeared on the B-Sides, the disc that appeared with The Hits albums in the ‘90’s. A quick perusal of Discogs tells me this might be “Shockdelica’s” first appearance on CD.
I then follow up with the 12-inch single mixes, although an opportunity was missed by the curators of this box set adding the video version of “U Got The Look.” It is an edit of the longer 12-inch version, but there was room to add that one as well. My rearrangement of this disc concludes with a “dub version” of “Hot Thing,” which loses the sheer heat of the album and 12-inch mixes.
Well, that is the physical media that I have. It sounds amazing. There’s light clipping but in this spectrum of music, it makes sense. In terms of the Loudness Wars, I’d put the volume and compression at the “standards” used in the mid 90’s. I have a feeling as the overall public’s need for physical product further diminishes, the record company’s need for overly loud CDs will dissipate as well. Possibly, we will get two different digital masters; one for streaming and one for CD. Wishful thinking?
With the Super Deluxe Edition, Warner Bros. has released three discs worth of music from Prince’s Vault. I spent an afternoon listening to it without taking notes. There is a lot of heavy-duty funk on it that makes even The Black Album seem tame. What caught my ear most was an alternate version of “Ballad of Dorothy Parker” with horns. For some reason it sounds like Steely Dan and that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a 2-disc audio concert added as well, but I have not listened to it yet. The DVD added, a live show from Paisley Park on New Years Eve of 1987, is available for viewing on YouTube. I best be getting around to watching it because it may not be available for long.
The lack of compression on the CDs will keep me listening for a long time. Instead of the physical box, I will explore purchasing the Sign ‘O’ the Times Super Deluxe Edition in non-physical digital form. It is listed on iTunes for a cool $80.00. I’d prefer to get the lossless version from HD Tracks, but that lists for an even frostier $131.98. That is only $28.00 bucks cheaper than the 8-CD box from Amazon. Is the included book worth the extra money? From what I saw on unboxing videos it looks more picture oriented than I would care about so I kind of doubt it.
In any case, this entire set is worth owning. I am going to have to do it in tiers. But I will get there eventually.
One last thought to take with you. Whomever is responsible, Prince’s legacy has been handled better than the man himself did while he was alive. Explore not only the boxes that have been drawn from his ‘80s albums but also those from his later albums as well.
It may be decades before Prince’s true influence is fully understood. Or his complete musical works fully realized.
And that’s each man’s take on Sign O’ The Times – Super Deluxe Edition. Djrobblog gives the sincerest of thanks to my fellow old guys – guest writers Dean Michaels and Bloomberg (a/k/a Scott Bloomfield) – whose contributions are always invaluable.
We had originally selected another album for this month’s 3 Old Guys review series. It was Jimi Hendrix’ second album, Axis: Bold Is Love. That review would have commemorated the 50th anniversary of the legendary guitarist’s passing in September. We’ll celebrate Jimi in the next edition.
Until next month’s installment, please stay (and play) safe!
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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