The period leading up to Prince‘s masterpiece Sign O’ the Times has become a thing of legend. Three albums were started, aborted and eventually reshuffled to make the double LP that eventually surfaced in 1987.
The released record occasionally shows its battle scars: Sign O’ the Times is sweet pop one minute, dirty R&B the next – and then it gets all funky before slowing down for a bedroom romp. It’s all over the place, but in the most glorious of ways. And it’s not hard to believe Prince would have assembled the exact same Sign O’ the Times even if he didn’t have three scrapped LPs sitting in his vault: He was that prolific and open to anything at the time.
An eight-CD Super Deluxe Edition of the album tags on leftover tracks from various sessions, early versions dating back to 1979, single mixes and a live show recorded three months after the release of the original album, which receives an overhaul here with a new remaster.
It’s a lot to take in, but as an archival package, it’s as essential as 2019’s 1999 and 2017’s Purple Rain boxes, maybe more so since the period collected here has had such a troubled, disorganized history. It’s not the final word on the subject – several session cuts that have shown up on other albums over the years aren’t repeated on the new set – but it makes understanding Prince’s bountiful 1986 an easier task.
And at times, it’s a thrilling journey. Songs earmarked for the never-released Dream Factory (“It’s a Wonderful Day”), Camille (“Shockadelica,” a B-side first released in 1987 and included here in both edited and extended versions) and Crystal Ball (“Rebirth of the Flesh”) albums are scattered over the three most significant discs.
The ensemble workout “Witness 4 the Prosecution” would have been a laudable addition to Sign O’ the Times. Likewise, the 7″ version of “Crystal Ball” scales the song – first released in a 10-minute version on 1998’s three-disc vault-cleaning Crystal Ball – to its most focused points. And the playful “Cosmic Day” complements the sunshine pop of LP tracks like “Starfish and Coffee.”
Not everything works. Jazz legend Miles Davis is lost in the hectic “Can I Play With U?,” and several songs like “Promise to Be True” attach themselves to band-showcasing grooves that have nowhere to go. And, not surprising for a project of this size and scope, some tracks are merely sketches, like the piano doodle “Visions” and its guitar counterpart, “Colors.”
A few don’t even qualify as curios: “Nevaeh Ni Ecalp” is backward-tape nonsense stemming from “A Place in Heaven,” also included here with two different vocals, one by Prince and another by the Revolution’s Lisa Coleman.
Still, embryonic takes on songs that ended up on the finished record offer occasionally intriguing listens. A version of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” from 1979 is more New Wave than power-pop in its minimalist setting, but most of the song’s essential pieces are already in place. And an early vocal run-through of “Forever in My Life” works through some of the kinks before it was ready for Sign O’ the Times.
The edits, remixes and extended versions of the album’s singles dust out the corners, uncovering some obscure but sometimes unnecessary relics from back in the day, though Shep Pettibone’s seven-minute “Club Mix” of “Strange Relationship” is all ’80s resplendence, reminding you that this timeless work came out the same year Starship‘s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” hit No. 1.
A concert from the Netherlands in June 1987 serves a similar vault-cleaning purpose. Prince was more interested in looking forward and playing his new material than revisiting his past, so a reworked “Little Red Corvette” clocks in at a little more than a minute and a half, while the show-ending Sign O’ the Times song “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” goes on for almost 14 minutes.
And that pretty much sums up this Super Deluxe Edition of Prince’s best album: He had so much to work with, he often had no idea what to do or where to go with it. All he knew is that he wanted to move on, which resulted in a grab-bag of a record. Is Sign O’ the Times pop? R&B? Rock? Funk? Psychedelic? A singular art project by an artist who used his fame to push the boundaries of genre labels? It’s all of these. And these eight CDs prove that nobody was better at all this than Prince.