This story started as an anniversary post. You know, that breezy journalistic trope whereby something turns x amount of years old, and you write about it.
And it became…? Memoir? Panegyric? A channeling of the past?
Whatever it is, the album I’m about to write about is not much older than me. March 30 marked the 35th birthday of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times (SOTT). For years I felt compelled to celebrate the occasion in writing. I missed the 25th anniversary, and then the 30th. Well, guess I missed the 35th anniversary too. I didn’t post on the day of the actual anniversary. For that matter, neither did the ‘official’ Prince Facebook page. But at this point I’m two months late.
Why the lack of enthusiasm? Prince’s 1987 album was once my northern star. A rare asteroid that had been excavated in snowy Minneapolis. And now, as I missed my third chance in ten years to contemplate it, I wondered: did I really love this album? Writing, as expected, brought answers clumsily, if at all.
Summertime. I sat on a bus headed out of Colchester, Vermont, to the nearest Walmart. I was a freshman at a college named for an archangel. I listened to SOTT on an off-brand CD Walkman. I’m sure I had an iPod at this point. But it was 2010, and a fetish for the retro was not only permissible but encouraged. Or so I imagined. I mean, Urban Outfitters was a thing. But I was still an utter weirdo to my peers.
The question was: How to make friends?
The answer was obvious: nicotine! I didn’t smoke, so I picked up the habit. Cigarettes seemed too committal, so I chose the more toxic alternative of Black & Milds. They come in two kinds, and one is better than the other, but I’ll save that reveal for the end.
Anyway: I moved into a dorm. I had a window on the second floor. My first roommate said: I thought you were gonna be, like, more of a hipster. So he had thought based off my Facebook pics. But what was I instead? Just…weird? Apparently the way I cuffed my skinny jeans was what threw him off.
Truth be told, I was transitioning out of my bourgeois eccentricity—a phase of one’s personality that tends to exist at ages either very young or very old. I was entering a more unhinged style. By which I mean: Inappropriate reactions and interactions. Misunderstanding my own tenderness, or tendency toward dismissal. Contempt? Fear? All things unsure and questionable. Typical teen boy shit, which no amount of Black & Milds could suffocate.
None of it mattered. Or I made it not matter. Prince’s music was Celestial; it occupied my daydreams. Back in reality, I switched roommates and my new roommate and I ended up hating each other. I was loud, he said. Eh, I can’t deny it. Some of this noise and after midnight volume came, undoubtedly, from my playing Prince on laptop speakers.
OK, I was an annoying roommate.
Also annoying: I had a pair of speakers in my bike basket. I was really all about noise pollution back then, huh? But now, with the vividness of something you’d thought you’d forgotten, I can hear those speakers playing Prince as I turn around on a forested area that seems too big to explore alone. Pine, rock, dirt. The Linn drum machine and Prince’s pitched up voice. I was often deflated in those days, depressed and alone. Wandering didn’t make me feel better, but at least it was a distraction.
The following summer, my enthusiasm had died none. The intervening months had not only proven SOTT as Prince’s magnum opus, but the maximum opus of any artistic work. I carried the album around in my backpack. Two discs, as essential as pens or textbooks or my house keys, always on my person, ready to be played—but were they? I’m laughing at how often I probably slid my purple backpack across floors, the CDs rattling inside, the case half-broken. I don’t think I own those CDs anymore. I’m hoping I found them in a state of disrepair, and finally let them go.
hot takes of a hot young thing
I wrote about the album many times. Took notes on individual songs. Listened carefully, then listened carefully once more. With every instance: a different, small nugget of something only I could decipher. Again: or so I thought. All this writing was juvenilia. I shared it eagerly. Foolishly. In emails or on the predecessor to this blog itself. I always liked putting things online. Here was something that grasped me and made me want to share. Blah.
What possessed me then? The unimpeachable artistry I felt through SOTT made me want to make things. To emulate or comment or contribute.
What I missed in my naïveté was the haphazard way the album itself had come to exist. The old saying goes that a camel is a horse designed by committee. SOTT’s creation was very much an exercise in camel making.
Prince’s previous album, Parade (1986), was the kind of minimalism meant as salve after a period of Dionysian excess—obviously that’s Purple Rain. Europeans loved the coquettish Parade, but stateside its coolness was received with another chill. Or so goes the “pop life” the artist himself once sang of—that is, this is how the SOTT era is framed and represented by most musical journalistic accounts. Every pop star as person exists as equivalent in myth. I mean, I wasn’t there—do I really know?
The important thing: there were iterations of albums, each with increasingly draggy names like Dream Factory and Camille (the second an entire disc of pitch shifted songs, which, coincidentally, are some of Prince’s best). Prince was dating his bandmate’s twin—tumultuously—and his output around this time was frenzied. He was expansive, recording so many amazing songs in 1986 that entire bootlegs have been devoted to this breathless year.
So Prince’s idea of ‘compromise,’ in that bottomlessly ambitious way expected of icons, was to create Crystal Ball, a triple album. Warner Bros, Prince’s label and his original patron (and eventually his archenemy), wasn’t keen on that idea. “Triple” on vinyl meant six sides of material—a cosmographic-scale of attention. Would people pay for such a hefty set? Would they care? What if this one flopped like Parade?
The corporate logic of it all makes sense (corporately). Still, it’s not rare that artists who are good at making albums tend to make more than one good one. That they tend to repeat themselves is only proof of their tact for making blueprints.
BUT: It’s harder to consistently poke the same vein. Per Grimes, the PR magnet who remains one of the most Zeitgeist-y musicians working today: “Albums are trash unless you sit down and make a really good album. I’m not really that consistent.”
Was Prince? His discography has a few great schematics, each of which resounded at least partially with works he released after 1990. But like any mainstream artist’s big discography, volume introduces issues of quality control. When Prince finally did release Crystal Ball as a limited-edition set in 1998, it was a totally different beast, sharing only a name with the original.
So Prince’s first Crystal Ball never scried. By the time SOTT released, 22 tracks had been cut, replaced and streamlined to a leaner sixteen. It was in the end a wise choice, as the format of the double album is what provides the music’s lovely shape: nine songs on the first disc, then seven on the second.
On the album cover by Prince’s collaborator Jeff Katz, it sure looks like the artist has traveled far. Prince resembles a wayfarer or returning nomad. The Prodigal Son, maybe. He’s barely in the frame, and a little blurry. His back’s turned to a tableau of late-night eats, seedy haunts, neon signage and a drum set. Seemingly exhausted of all that has brought him to this point. Consolidating his powers as he figures out what to do next. And wearing his everyday clothes, according to Katz: “That was his look 24/7.”
Prince’s visuals and fashion influenced me immensely when I was 18, as they were part of his entire pavonian package. His artistic ethos boasted Eros in moods both comedic and dark. My notes from 2011 on “Strange Relationship” describe it as “Minnie Mouse chides Mickey Mouse for never satisfying her.”
Ha, how crude. Idolatrous. The symptoms of a brat. No wonder these songs—sparkling and lascivious, just as often brooding—held my ear so closely. Their undercurrent is very much a young, masculine psychology. There’s internal torture, external heckling. Certain wrongs are redressed. Other vices are only multiplied. Amidst all the half-truths and personas, there’s an occasional truth sung achingly.
Crafted alongside label disputes, a breakup, the dissolution of his band—all these cataclysms only augment SOTT’s braggadocio. It’s dangerously close to (or already is) dad rock and yet its sentiments never stray too far from their essential youthfulness. That Prince used his synthesizer’s stock sounds speaks to either his expediency or his universal intent.
It starts with anti-drug propaganda and other assorted messaging smeared impasto, first dark and then bright (Tracks 1-2). A party follows—James Brown vibes all around. Then Joni Mitchell references, and arguments. Bathwater, lust, then a gentler lust (Tracks 3-6). A childhood story (his girlfriend’s), rebounded by a disturbing party romp that’s part cradle-robbing fantasy (Tracks 7-8). Next, an ode to fidelity, an ode to fuckin,’ and an ode beyond (tracks 9-11). A hard act to follow, that double-gendered “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” but Prince did it with “Strange Relationship” (track 12), the pairing of which forms, arguably, one of the most magnificent one-two punches in pop music. Then comes one more denial, a turning around in an attempt to ‘do better,’ before Christ hanging from the Cross (retooled for an arena sensibility), and, in the penultimate slot, a stupidly long nine-minute-plus jam. (Tracks 13-15).
To expand on that last one a bit: “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” is an overdubbed live track, distilling not only the energy of Prince's live show but the song’s very title and sentiment. Night contains possible music, but one song cannot fill a night. It is this, Prince’s pregaming paean to the immediate future, that grooves against fate in hopes of securing a beautiful night.
But the true beauty arrives with the final track. “Adore.” Have you ever been really obsessed with a song? To be so obsessed as to inhabit it, for a week or two or three? I tried to begin writing about this song and I put the studio version on, according to iTunes, for the first time in nearly a year.
It’s still too good to talk over! So I won’t….much. Prince was 28 years old when he recorded the original track. The boasting, the impishness, the materialism and passioned smolder—yeah, 28 seems about right. These are a young man’s absurd and powerful feelings. On “Adore,” these came first. The saxophone was added later.