33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the tenth installment of one person’s quest to read all 56 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Part 13 of 56: Sign ‘O’ The Times by Michaelangelo Matos (#10 in the series)
The collection of songs that comprise Prince‘s 1987 double album Sign ‘O’ The Times went through a few behind the scenes incarnations before hitting the shelves. Prince originally planned to release the songs -- along with several more --- as a triple album titled Crystal Ball. When the record company shot that one down, he not only pared down the list but tinkered with the sequencing as well. The Sign title cut (and eventual hit single) was originally slated for the end of side five. In his book, author Michaelangelo Matos traces the album from birth to fruition, and places it in context of all things Prince that came before and after -- and there was (and is) a lot. Chapters examining the album itself are framed by Matos’ personal recollections of getting the album as a kid in a Minnesota welfare family that somehow always found the money to make sure music was in the house. A quote from the book, one of several favorite passages I could choose from:
“Within two weeks of listening, a couple of things become apparent. One, Sign ‘O’ The Times is completely modern. The synths and production ensure that, of course, but beyond them there’s a connection to a right-now that feels unlike anything in the classic rock I’ve been listening to or the present I’m living in... There’s an open ended-ness, a gaze into the future that hasn’t happened yet, ambition that isn’t wholly tied up in pleasing the elders.”
“The other thing I’ve come to realize is that this album is the greatest fucking thing I have ever heard in my life, and that realization has me completely shaken. I live in my head so much that I’ve invented wholly arbitrary rules of conduct for how to like and dislike things, what’s allowed and what isn’t, and in order to allow this opinion I have to shift those rules dramatically. I’m not sure I can do it. There’s something I don’t quite trust about music that doesn’t already seem to have it’s byways mapped out.”
Good stuff. Let’s talk to the author.
For the 33 1/3 series, did you choose Prince first and choose the album later? Or was it Sign ‘O’ The Times, right from the beginning?
M. Matos: I decided on Sign specifically from the beginning. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was the album I wanted to pitch first. I was also saved partly by the fact that when David Barker was planning the series he’d had someone slated to write about Sign who’d bailed out. So he wanted a book on that album, whoever wrote it; the fact that it’s the most significant album of my life was just gravy as far as he was concerned.
Is Sign ‘O’ The Times your personal favorite, or the Prince album you felt most deserved an in-depth look?
Sign is absolutely my favorite Prince album, and one of my half-dozen favorite albums, period. (My favorite is Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On; I like Miles Marshall Lewis’s 33 1/3 on that album.) It’s his richest work, the most perfectly formed, the most consistently great, and it’s also got his widest range, tonally and sonically. Too much of the three-hour Emancipation, from 1996, has the same sort of squashed sound quality, though I like it a lot.
One thing about the book is that it’s very personal, which has garnered mixed response, fairly enough. I hadn’t intended to make it so much so until I started writing it; what had been planned to cover about 15 percent of the total text wound up being closer to 35 percent. But in some ways I’m happiest about that aspect of the book, because I’d spent years trying not to write in first-person because it had been drilled into me by writing for certain publications that didn’t allow it. And I still believe to a great degree that anyone writing journalism or criticism needs to know how to do it without referring to themselves, which for most beginning writers is almost an involuntary reflex - one that needs to be avoided if your writing is going to be interesting to a world that has no idea who you are or why it should care.
Anyway, believing that as I did, allowing myself to write about running around in my Spider-Man Underoos while trying to mimic the cover of Dirty Mind was like busting out of jail.
For those who are unfamiliar with Prince (and lots of younger “indie rock only” listeners seem to be)... what would be your recommended starting point?
I remember a party I went to in New York about six years ago, in which I got into an annoying conversation with a younger woman who refused to believe that Prince’s music could in any way be classified as “rock”. Why? Because he didn’t sound like the Pixies.
So yes, I do think I know to what you’re referring. I’d still say Sign is definitive, but so in their ways are Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain. If we’re talking about people who like dancy-rocky stuff a la LCD Soundsystem, then Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999 are all good analogues. Purple Rain, 24 years and zillions of involuntary hearings later, is still inexhaustible. And if it’s someone who loves unexpected sounds popping up all over, Parade and Sign take the cake. I’d also ask “indie-rock-only” people what precisely it is about life and enjoyment they hate so much.