Super Deluxe Release Of Prince's 'Sign O' The Times' Holds Up As A Masterpiece
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. There's a new version of one of Prince's most highly praised releases, "Sign O' The Times." What's billed as the super deluxe edition is a package containing eight CDs, including three discs of previously unreleased material, plus a concert performance DVD. Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed the album for FRESH AIR at its original release in 1987. Now, 33 years later, he's given the expanded version a fresh spin, and he finds Prince's creativity more impressive than ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARFISH AND COFFEE")
PRINCE: (Singing) It was 7:45. We were all in line to greet the teacher, Miss Cathleen. First was Kevin. Then came Lucy. Third in line was me. All of us were ordinary compared to Cynthia Rose. She always stood at the back of the line, a smile beneath her nose. Her favorite number was 20, and every single day, if you asked her what she had for breakfast, this is what she'd say - starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam, butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, a side order of ham. If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you'd understand starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In this age of everything is overrated, I try to avoid using the word masterpiece. But in 1987, Prince released "Sign O' The Times," and 33 years later, it really does hold up as his masterpiece, the sustained excellence of its double-album length edging out what will always be my favorite Prince album, 1980's "Dirty Mind."
"Sign O' The Times" was meant to be a triple album, but Prince's label, Warner Bros., thought that was economically unwise and pressured him to reduce it to a double. That must have pained Prince mightily because this was an especially ripe period for him. His ideas and work ethic seemed limitless. Just how limitless is suggested by this new so-called super deluxe version of "Sign O' The Times" containing eight music discs, three of which are previously unreleased songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EGGPLANT")
PRINCE: (Singing) That kind of girl's no good for you. She flips her hair and thinks she's cool, giggles at every joke you tell. Ask her religion, she'll say swell. Starving children - now that's hot. Long as she's eating, damn the lot. Queen of England, Duke of Earl - they ain't got nothing on this girl.
TUCKER: That's a tune called "Eggplant." There's an impressive range of music on these discs. In my original 1987 review here on FRESH AIR, I noted that the music gives the lie to the idea that Black artists are only influenced by other Black artists. There's also a wide range of moods and characters created and inhabited by the lyrics. At one point during this era, Prince had planned to put out an album under the pseudonym of Camille, singing from a female point of view. One example of this is the song "Jealous Girl."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEALOUS GIRL")
PRINCE: (Singing) We been together, baby, so, so long. Honey, I'm your biggest fan. Other women want you, but they're so, so wrong. I'll never let them take my man. You took my girlfriend out on a date. I didn't like it, so I cut up her face. Hey, hey. What can I say? I'm just a jealous girl. Hey, hey. Jealous girl...
TUCKER: Unlike most expanded editions of albums by other artists, this one contains a lot of first-rate (ph) material that could easily have been included on "Sign O' The Times." Even Prince's rejects, such as the instantly addictive "Promise To Be True," sound like hit singles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROMISE TO BE TRUE")
PRINCE: Well, hello. It's about time you got home. No, baby, don't try that tail-wagging routine on me. I want to know where you been. Now, speak. That's right. Get to talking or get to walking.
(Singing) Love, ooh.
Am I supposed to believe that?
(Singing) Lipstick on your shirt, baby. Perfume in your bed. You betting on a new love, baby. But you lost my love instead. If I take you back, you got to promise - promise to be true. Yeah. Promise to always be true. You got to promise - promise to be true. Promise to be true. Promise to always be true
TUCKER: The album also contains some music that will be familiar to anyone who went to Prince concerts. We finally get the formal release of the superb funk groove called "Soul Psychodelicide," a concert staple that many of us remember Prince used to cue his band to play by yelling the words ice cream.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL PSYCHODELICIDE")
PRINCE: Ice cream. (Playing music). Ice cream. (Playing music).
TUCKER: To put this material in some context, in 1986, Prince had two breakups. He disbanded his backup group, The Revolution, and in his personal life, he broke off an engagement. The majority of the music on this huge collection is the work of Prince as a one-man band, a solitary artist creating a crowd of sounds as company. He was at once at the height of his powers and in a period of transition, which resulted in relentless quests to seek out new sounds, new goals, new areas of exploration. It inspired, for example, this swirling maelstrom of hard rock and romanticism called "Love And Sex."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND SEX (1986 VERSION)")
PRINCE: (Singing) Love and sex, an emotional merry-go-round. It's like riding a Ferris wheel upside down. Every time I see you, my heart just pounds. And my knees go weak. It's hard to speak. All I can say is I'm under your hex. All I want to do is you, love and sex. Check me out...
TUCKER: The sheer playfulness and generosity of so many of these songs, the life that bursts from this cascade of music, makes Prince's death in 2016 seem once again such a staggering loss.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed the new super deluxe edition of Prince's 1987 album "Sign O' The Times." On tomorrow's show, as the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act goes before the Supreme Court, we talked with Sarah Kliff of The New York Times about how the act has functioned since the individual mandate was effectively removed and about the likelihood the law will be overturned by a six-vote conservative majority on the court. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE DAWN OF THE MORNING COMES")
PRINCE: (Singing) What a day, what a day, what day, what a day when the dawn of the morning comes. All eyes will open to view the new rising sun. There'll be joy, so much fun, love for everyone - the dawn of the morning comes. Oh, what a day, when the dawn of the morning comes. Oh, what a day. There'll be love for everyone. We will dream in clouds while we're looking to the sun (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.