Sunday , March 7 2021

Music Reviews: Prince’s ‘Sign O’ the Times’ (Super Deluxe Edition) Plus Richard Hell

A new edition of Sign O’ the TimesPrince’s brilliant and remarkably eclectic 1987 double album, easily earns its “super deluxe” billing with a long list of bonus goodies. Delivered in an LP-sized slipcase, the set includes an excellent remaster of the original album on two discs, plus six additional CDs: one with remastered single mixes and edits, three with previously unreleased contemporaneous material from the vaults, and two with a terrific June 1987 concert from Utrecht in the Netherlands. 

There’s more. The package also incorporates a 120-page hardcover book with the late artist’s handwritten lyrics for many of the songs; numerous period photos; extensive essays by Lenny Kravitz, Dave Chapelle, and others; and notes on the material. Last but definitely not least, the set includes a DVD that contains a full-length, previously unreleased New Year’s Eve concert at Prince’s Paisley Park in Minneapolis, plus three videos. 

There are eight hours of music here, nearly half of it previously unreleased—and that’s not counting the DVD. The only omission—and it’s a puzzling one in a box that is otherwise this expansive—is the Sign O’ the Times film that first appeared seven months after the album in 1987.

That album, arguably Prince’s best, still dazzles after all these years. Prince is all over the place, drawing on everything from R&B, funk, soul, and Latin to rock, psychedelia, and more than a dollop of jazz. (Who else could record a medley that includes material as disparate as Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and Prince’s own “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” or follow “When Doves Cry” with a wild New Year’s Eve reading of “Auld Lang Syne”? His vocals—especially his falsetto parts—are amazing. So is his guitar work, which is often as impressive as anything that ever issued from the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. 

Insistent beats and complex, surprise-filled melodies permeate the songs, while the lyrics encourage you to party and explore the place where eroticism and spirituality meet. In a sense, this is the same brew that Prince cooked up on albums like Purple Rain and 1999, but he ups his game on numbers like “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”

The consistent excellence of the package’s 45 unreleased tracks is impressive—especially since this album arrives on the heels of a “super deluxe” edition of 1999 that also came loaded with first-rate previously unavailable material. Like Bob Dylan’s vaults, Prince’s seem to contain an endless supply of heretofore unreleased recordings that are as impressive as the released ones. (He was so prolific that he often found time to write great material for other artists, such as the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to U”; some of the bonus tracks here were written for but not recorded by such artists as Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell.)

As good as the eight CDs in the new edition of Sign O’ the Times are, they’re arguably overshadowed by the box’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour concert on DVD. No, it doesn’t feature surround sound or a widescreen image—the show is, after all, 33 years old—but the audio and video are excellent, and the performance is a knockout. 

While singing and playing guitar (and occasionally piano or drums), Prince is constantly in motion, bouncing around the stage, dropping to his knees, or dancing with his bandmates. Like Bruce Springsteen, he seems determined to leave his concert audiences astonished, and he does just that, offering genre-bending performances that twist and turn on a dime, beautifully choreographed dance moves worthy of Michael Jackson, guitar licks that will have you on your feet, and a horn section on par with James Brown’s. By the time you get to the concert’s half-hour finale—a version of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” that includes a memorable guest appearance by Miles Davis—you’ll be calling this show a tour de force.

Also Noteworthy 

Richard Hell & the VoidoidsDestiny Street Complete. Punk/new wave singer, songwriter, and bassist Richard Hell is probably best known for the title track of his 1977 debut LP, Blank Generation, but the 1982 follow-up—Hell’s only other album under his own name—is at least as good. Like the records by Television, which Hell cofounded with Tom Verlaine, it draws its power largely from blistering guitar work, in this case from the late, great Robert Quine. Also on board are drummer Fred Maher (whose subsequent credits include coproducing Lou Reed’s New York) and the late guitarist Naux (aka Juan Maciel). The program, which recalls Verlaine as well as early Talking Heads, includes frenetic performances of eight songs written or in a few cases cowritten by Hell as well as a likable cover of Ray Davies’s “I Gotta Move” and a fine version of Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone.”

Despite the album’s excellence, Hell was never satisfied with it, and this new 43-track, two-CD release includes all the results of his attempts to make it even better. In addition to a remaster of the 1982 recording, Destiny Street Complete features a version first issued in 2009 as Destiny Street Repaired that weds the original’s drums, bass, and rhythm guitars to new vocals and guitar solos; also featured are a 2019 remix and a baker’s dozen single and demo versions and other bonus tracks. Three—and in some cases, four—variations of each song may be a bit much for some listeners, but the price is right and the music is pretty consistently explosive.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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