Prince’s ‘Sign O’ the Times’ Deluxe Edition Is a Sensory Overload of Great Unreleased Music: Album Review

Prince Sign O the Times Album
Courtesy of Warner Records

When you love something — a person, a dessert, a hat, or in this case, an album — you tend to want more of it. Usually, in the case of albums, there are some leftover songs that are not-quite-as-good as the ones that made the cut, and occasionally there are great ones. But for the most part, they make it easy to understand why that proverbial cutting room floor exists.

Then there’s Prince — a tirelessly hyperprolific musical genius who seemed to spend most of every waking hour recording or performing. This is how you end up with a deluxe edition of “Sign O’ the Times,” which many fans feel is his best album, that includes a mind-boggling 63 unreleased songs and two amazing full concerts, one of them a DVD with a guest appearance from Miles Davis. And while the songs featuring Davis aren’t particularly exciting, that’s really the only not-great thing one can say about this collection, which offers up so much unreleased music from Prince’s golden era that it takes seven hours just to listen to, let alone absorb.

The saga of “Sign O’ the Times” — Prince’s most elaborate and diverse work, which spans from the pop smash “U Got the Look” to the ode of faith “The Cross” — is familiar to fans. It was the end result of a period of dramatic upheaval in his working and personal lives; its creation includes the breakup of the Revolution, the band that rode with him to superstardom, and the breakup of his engagement to Susannah Melvoin, singer and twin sister of the Revolution’s Wendy. This gives some context of how intertwined those lives were, and how transformational the changes. (Head here for more on the creation of the album, featuring interviews with his musicians and longtime engineer.)

Finally released in April of 1987, “Sign O’ the Times” was largely created over a period of around 18 months, but includes songs that date back as far as 1979 (when the awesome, new wave-flavored original version of the hit “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” on this set was recorded). More than half of the songs were included on a proposed double album with the Revolution called “Dream Factory” that was completed by the time of Prince’s final tour with that band in the summer of 1986. Some tracks came from a separate album called “Camille,” starring Prince’s autotuned alter-ego of the same name. Selections from both, along with a bunch of other songs, were rolled into a triple album called “Crystal Ball” that Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker convinced Prince to trim down to its final incarnation: “Sign O’ the Times,” a sprawling, wildly diverse 1987 double album that combines R&B, pop, rock, ballads and gospel across its 80 minutes in a dazzling display of his creativity and imagination. Its closest parallels and comparisons, we say without fear of exaggeration, are the Beatles’ “White Album” and Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.”

This gargantuan deluxe reissue is generously overstuffed with the original album; three CDs of unreleased songs or alternate versions of previously released songs (and even alternate versions of unreleased songs); a CD of singles, remixes and B-sides; and two full concerts, along with a lavish, photo- and fact-filled book. In short, it’s a die-hard fan’s fantasy come to life — and like the deluxe edition of “1999” released last year, goes a long way toward satiating appetites only made stronger by decades of bootlegs. (And, remarkably, the compilers left out a lot; boxed sets have a different purpose in the streaming age, so this collection serves equally as an archive to create playlists from, as well as a lean-back listening experience.)

Although many of the unreleased songs here are clearly jams or sketches of ideas never meant to see the light of day, Prince’s idea of a sketch was often a fully realized song, with multiple instrumental and vocal tracks. (It also bears noting that even though Prince had disbanded the Revolution by the time “Sign O’ the Times” was released, they played a big role in its creation and are featured on many songs here.)

With 63 unreleased songs, it’s hard to know where to begin, so we’ll start with the gems. The brilliant “All My Dreams” is like nothing else the group ever did: Prince’s voice, distorted to sound like an old 78-rpm record, contrasts with a huge cinematic arrangement and hilarious lyrics (“A submarine valiantly conquers a virgin sea/ A child is born, will you marry me?”). It closes with Prince speaking in a slowed-down voice and a stellar jazzy piano solo from the Revolution’s Lisa Coleman before returning to the original melody for one more verse before closing with a glorious “Don’t ever lose your dreams!” Amid the many strange and brilliant songs Prince created during this era, it’s one of the most elaborate, remarkable and “how on earth did they think of that?”

Another of that ilk is “Crystal Ball” (often titled “Expert Lover” on bootlegs), an ominous track that starts off slowly before erupting into demonic funk, with vocals by Prince-as-“Camille”; the version here is a single edit but the ten-plus-minute full pull is available on the 1998 “Crystal Ball” outtakes collection (which, confusingly, is different from the triple-album version of “Sign O’ the Times” that bears the same name).

Elsewhere, there are two versions of the rocking “Witness 4 the Prosecution,” which includes some ferocious guitar work, and three versions of the lovely lullaby “A Place in Heaven,” which features one of Prince’s most beautiful melodies. “In a Large Room With No Light” is a jazzy workout with the Revolution (and Sheila E. on drums) that includes a Latin flavor rare for this era. “Train” is Prince’s version of a rousing spiritual-influenced song that he later remade with Mavis Staples; “The Ball” is a weird, slowed-down raveup with varispeeded vocals (and was later remade into “I No” from Prince’s 1988 “Lovesexy” album). “Crucial” is a gorgeous falsetto ballad that was apparently replaced on the album at the last minute by the even more gorgeous “Adore.”

There are multiple early versions of familiar songs from the album: “Strange Relationship” is presented in its psychedelic original take; “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” has horns and a more prominent, treated vocal. “Forever in My Life” is practically a different song, given an early ‘70s soul treatment heavy on acoustic guitars, revealing chord changes that are inaudible on the spare arrangement on the final version (and there’s a third different arrangement, with churchy backing vocals, on the live CD).

Also included are tracks he presented to Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell — who were such iconic influences that it’s hard to imagine why Prince offered them such mediocre songs. “Can I Play With U” is a tepid funk workout spiced up by some cornet from Davis; while “Emotional Pump” is a slower funk track that it’s impossible to imagine Mitchell singing. Stronger are “I Need a Man” and “Promise to Be True,” Prince’s versions of two songs he worked on with Bonnie Raitt for an album that was never finished.

Yet even many of the less fully realized songs here include flashes of instrumental or vocal or songwriting brilliance. The gospel-ish “Walking in Glory” features Prince singing in a ceiling-scraping falsetto and firing off a blazing guitar solo; “Big Tall Wall” includes an elaborate multitracked wall of his vocals; and “Soul Psychodelicide” is a fiery ten-plus-minute jam that shows just how tight the band was — Prince says “On the one!” and a half-second later, the musicians stop dead.

Prince, of course, was a staggeringly great and hard-working performer, and the two incredible 1987 concerts here find him at the peak of his powers. While the compilers were unable to secure the rights for the dazzling “Sign O’ the Times” concert film (it’s available on video streaming services), instead we get a show from a couple of nights before that is subtly different but just as powerful — and full video of a two-hour-plus-long New Year’s Eve show at Paisley Park featuring Miles Davis, both of which are a full evening’s destination listening. The latter offering, which is available on YouTube for an unspecified time, is a fascinating document: While it initially follows the “Sign O’ the Times” tour setlist, the last hour or so is a hits encore — which features Prince playing a fiery “Auld Lang Syne” on lead guitar as an intro to “Purple Rain” — and then it’s a long jam, like the after-show sets his groups often played, with some brief soloing from Davis, lots of dancing and joking from Prince, and brief Aretha Franklin and James Brown covers.

And yet, the most revealing moment in the entire sprawling collection — the one where the listener hears Prince as benevolent bandleader, and gets a sense of what made his musicians so loyal — comes at the beginning of the gorgeous “Power Fantastic,” which captures the first time the band played the song. Prince asks if everyone’s ready, then describes what he wants: “We’re just gonna build and build and build until we’re making loud, fast noise, and then I’m gonna go ‘Shhhh,’ and you just bring it down …  Okay, ready? Just trip — there are no mistakes this time. This might not be the one we keep, but just have fun with it.”

And for all the tales from exhausted musicians and studio engineers about Prince’s days-long recording sessions, marathon concerts and 12-hour rehearsals, the upside is the bounty of music he left behind.