Tracklist: Sign O' The Times 04:56 Play In The Sunshine 05:05 Housequake 04:42 The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker 04:01 It 05:09 Starfish And Coffee 02:50 Slow Love 04:22 Hot Thing 05:39 Forever In My Life 03:30 U Got The Look* 03:47 If I Was Your Girlfriend 05:01 Strange Relationship 04:01 I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man 06:29 The Cross 04:48 It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night 09:01 Adore 06:30

BY KURT LODER
Prince is beginning to be a puzzlement. Sign o' the Times, his ninth album in what is now a nine-year recording career, is of course largely dazzling; sixteen tracks spread across two LPs -- half of them brilliant, half merely better than ninety percent of the stuff you hear on the radio. There really is no one else like him (although a lot of people try to be), and he remains that rare pop artist to whom you can attach the word genius --or artist, for that matter -- without gagging.
But three years ago, with his album Purple Rain perched atop the charts and his movie of the same name racking up boffo box office, Prince appeared to be poised on the verge of some Great Statement -- some grand new synthesis of black and white musical forms, of sexual redefinition and spiritual devotion. He seemed, in short, to be about to put it all together . But in the wake of Purple Rain, he has drifted. Maybe the movie, with its quasi-autobiographical themes and its implicit challenge to his powers as a budding auteur, focused his creative energies in a one-time-only way. Maybe the Prince-mania that attended its release frightened him. (Or disgusted him. Or bored him.) Whatever the case, with the subsequent Around the World in a Day and Parade, he has been backing away from that peak ever since.

 

Now comes Sign o' the Times, and the Great Statement remains unmade.
This is only a relative letdown, of course. Coming from almost any other artist, Sign would be cause for celebration (not to mention mad partying). The best music here is tough and inventive and exuberantly experimental. Dispensing with his former band, the Revolution (it appears on only one cut, the funk workout "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," recorded live in Paris last year), Prince scales back its creative attack to what is essentially a one-man-band operation, with overdubbed assists from two estimable horn men, sax player Eric Leeds and trumpeter Atlanta Bliss. (There are also key bits by percussionist-singer Sheila E., ex-Revolutionaries Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, Wendy's sister Susannah Melvoin, pop singer Sheena Easton and a new vocalist named Camille.)
The resulting minimalism, especially after some of the string-laden pretensions of Parade, is wonderfully bracing. "Sign o' the Times," the album's first single, sets up an immediate tension between a rubbery bass riff and a ponging percussion figure, blossoming rather darkly with the addition of subtly unsettling keyboard chords as Prince decries the contemporary prevalence of drugs and war and suggests, as an antidote, "Let's fall in love, get married, have a baby/We'll call him Nate (If it's a boy)." This is pure Prince -- the formidable rhythmic power, the sociosexual transcendentalism, the loopy humor -- and it's perfect, a piece of real aural art.
Elsewhere, and with equally impressive results, Prince reasserts his mastery of both black funk idioms and white psychedelic and hard-rock styles. "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," with its Who-like crunch chords and its irresistible keyboard riff, is the most irresistible guitar rocker Prince has done since 1980's "When You Were Mine." And "It," with its Pink Floyd-style guitar tones, and the delightful "Hot Thing," which features an odd little Oriental keyboard hook, re-confirm Prince's genuine affection for Sixties-style trippery. The stylized funk tracks are even more revealing -- they seem in some ways to be almost homages. The sexy "Slow Love," with its jaunty keyboards and neck-nuzzling delivery, vividly recalls Sly Stone at the peak of his powers. And the uproarious "Housequake" is a virtual survey of thirty years of black performance styles: the title apparently refers to house music, which erupted out of Chicago last year; the singer's boastful persona is borrowed from rap; the wicked beat and machine-gun horn lines are pure James Brown; and the goofy exhortation that brackets the track -- "Shut up, already! Damn!" -- is lifted from Little Richard. As might be expected, the whole things smokes ferociously.
The balance of the album finds Prince being his unpredictable self -- which is, if nothing else, never dull. "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" takes it title not from the celebrated quiptress of the Algonquin Round Table but rather from a fictive blond waitress who has "a quicker wit" than Prince and (like him) loves Joni Mitchell. The hilarious and sexually arresting "If I Was Your Girlfriend" is a funk-thunk number with weird crowdlike backup vocals; it finds Prince wheedling his beloved with the disconcerting question "Would you run to me if somebody hurt you/Even if that somebody was me?" Then there's "The Cross," one of his most straightforward religious songs, which starts off as a sort of folk-rock ballad, then erupts into overpowering power-guitar chords and concludes in a shimmering puddle of jazzlike vocal harmony straight out of the Four Freshman song book.
In fact, Prince's virtuoso eclecticism has seldom been so abundantly displayed, from the Hendrixian funk that crops up on "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" and the Wizard of Oz drones that form the unlikely center of "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" to the razory instrumental run in "Play in the Sunshine" and the eerie keyboard wheezlings in "Housequake."
That all sounds pretty interesting. In fact, it is. "Sign o' the Times," "Housequake," "Hot Thing" and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" will be new Prince classics. "It," "Slow Love," "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" and the almost-heavy-metal "U Got the Look" are almost as good. There would be one great LP hidden in the sprawl of this double album if the songs exerted any uniform effect. Unfortunately, they don't. That's okay; one takes great songs wherever one can find them. But simple virtuosity -- mere brilliance, one might almost say -- seems too easy an exercise, at this point, for someone of Prince's extraordinary gifts. And he is beginning to repeat himself: "Play in the Sunshine" is the sort of soulful raveup he's tossed off several times before, and the little bass idea that so memorably animates the title tune crops up again in both "Hot Thing" and the mildly intriguing "Forever in My Life." This way lies decadence.
Prince appeared on the scene as a champion of outcast originality. He demonstrated for a new generation the beauty of true style and unconstrained personality, the complexity of the interplay among love and God and sexuality and -- most important -- the essentially multiracial nature of rock & roll music. He is an artist capable of altering popular consciousness in concrete ways, but Sign o' the Times seems unlikely to alter anything more profound than the face of the hit parade. Nothing wrong with that, but it's rather like the story about Jesus feeding the multitudes with miraculous loaves and fishes. Such fundamental nourishment is always appreciated. But when a full-blown feast is so obviously within Prince's capabilities, one wonders: Why doesn't he go for it?