With his recent induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame begetting more attention (covers of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly) than a good-not-great new album (Musicology) would have otherwise gotten, the current Prince tour feels something like a valedictory, and reports from the early shows portend good things. If it all seems a little manufactured or if it overstates the extent of this return to form (Musicology is no "Love & Theft", to pick another recent "comeback" example), I'll welcome any excuse to turn one's attention to the greatest pop musician of the past 25 years.
Prince was my first pop love, so I've been inspired by the current wave of Prince hype to explore his back catalog for the first time in years. First single, "Soft and Wet": truth-in-advertising. Prince: maybe the best teen-pop record ever made. Dirty Mind: stone classic from first carnal electrobeat to last. Controversy: politics dumber and provocations sillier than I remembered but "Do Me, Baby" a soft-porn/soft-soul beacon he wouldn't top until Sign 'O' the Times' "Adore." 1999: more consistently body-rockin new-wave, computer-blue James Brown (especially "DMSR") with a dirty, dirty mouth. Purple Rain: coming on a little too strong (and a little too apocalyptic) but with of-the-era b-sides "17 Days" and "Erotic City" (!) a testament to his cultural peak. Around the World in a Day: the almost unlistenable negation/left-turn/comeuppance. Parade: the under-appreciated return "Kiss," his most undeniable pop moment;"Girls & Boys," an unhinged joy; lovely, lachrymose "Sometimes It Snows in April," among his most fully committed lunacies. And then: Sign 'O' the Times.
Ah, Sign 'O' the Times: This required no reexploration because I haven't gone more than a few months without listening to some or all of it since first buying it on cassette back in 1987. I consider it among the three or four best records I've ever heard, which is why my favorite bit of new Prince product isn't the fine Musicology but Michaelangelo Matos' 121-page treatment of Sign as part of Continuum's new 33 1/3 series, in which various writers tackle individual albums in long form.
Matos, the current music editor at Seattle Weekly, is a former Flyer contributor and personal acquaintance. I know him well enough to know that he holds Sign 'O' the Times in the same esteem as I, but I don't know him well enough to have prepared me for the shock of recognition that came from reading the first of the four "Sides" his Sign book is divided into.
Matos grew up on welfare in the Minneapolis 'burbs; I grew up working class in the small-town South. But the cultural development that Matos (who is my age) recounts on his way to Sign 'O' the Times is so close to my own that I imagine there must be thousands of others who share it: Prince fandom flamed by "Little Red Corvette" and Purple Rain making him seem like a superhero to an already pop-oriented elementary schooler; rock-fandom in general juiced by the dawn of the video era (MTV, Friday Night Videos, Night Flight) and the pop explosion of 1984 (see also Springsteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Van Halen); a precocious introvert's interest in lists and facts fed by such Eighties talismans as Casey Kasem's Weekly Top 40, baseball-card statistics, and the emergence of Trivial Pursuit; an archivist's interest in pop history spiked by baby-boomer nostalgia that shoved the Sixties (especially the Beatles) down your throat (with Rolling Stone's 1987 Top 100 album list providing the map to pop's past); then breaking free of someone else's nostalgia with the revelation that the best record you've ever heard wasn't made in 1967 but only a few months ago. For Matos, Sign 'O' the Times was that revelation, as it was for me.
That's a personal testament. But the rest of Matos' fine little book steps back for a more critical take on both the album and Prince's career in toto. Matos identifies the factors that make Sign of particular relevance: signifying the end of Prince's classic era; the last true double album conceived as two discs and four sides and largely experienced as such before the CD age turned nearly everything into an overlong, underedited chore; the last important R&B album that was generally untouched by hip-hop but still utterly modern. For all those reasons, Sign is historic. But it's also great, and Matos makes the case for that as well.
Matos chooses the relatively underdiscussed "Strange Relationship" as the crux of Prince's most serious and mature album, maintaining that this seriousness manifests itself not in the dated-on-contact topical material of the "overrated" (so true) lead/title single but in the thoughtfulness of its love songs, such as "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Forever in My Life," and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man."
"Sign is certainly kaleidoscopic," Matos writes, "moving from minimalist funk to big-band ballads to raw, gut-level rock to whatever 'The Ballad of Dorothy Parker' is. But it's emotionally prismatic as well." Matos also connects this lyrical maturity to a jazz sensibility that made Sign Prince's first horn record, even though the instruments (the only ones Prince couldn't play himself) appear on only five tracks. And the book's discussion of Sign proper ends and peaks exactly where the album does, with the one-man, slow-jam, headphone symphony "Adore," which Matos contends is "all show, all sincerity": "'Adore' means it. All of it. Every last dappled, gold-embossed, spangled, dewy-eyed, iridescent, opalescent (that's right, this song emanates light and diffracts it), incense-permeated, sweet-time-taking, defenses-breaking, manifest-destiny-of-love-sweet-love second of it."
I haven't seen "Adore" on any concert set lists for the current tour, unfortunately (or not, since it's impossible to imagine any live performance coming close to the studio version), though I have seen Sign standouts "U Got the Look" and "Forever in My Life" (as well as relative nonhits "I Feel For You" and "Sometimes It Snows in April"). The set lists are, of course, heavy on Musicology, which fits fine on what people are calling a "hits" tour, since, though lacking genius, Musicology is classicist Prince at his most assured going through the old motions with renewed purpose. The title track glances backward thematically, but the JB beats, sproingy synth lines, captivating vocals (his most underappreciated skill), and muddled politics are plenty old-school. n