Sign "O" The Times
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Prince's baffling brilliance
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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?

(RS 498)

New Musical Express
June 4, 1987

U won't believe this

Prince isn't a star, he's an event. And so is the release of his new double LP. Paolo Hewitt is let to the subterranean bunker at WEA records, and gets first listen. Prior to the release of the new Prince LP 'Sign O' The Times', WEA Records decided to place a worldwide embargo on this new offering from the Minneapolis Maverick. This meant, in effect, that advance copies were witheld from both radio and press until its worldwide release (Monday morning), with WEA London informing all enquires that tapes of the LP were safely stashed away in a safe, with a round-the-clock bodyguard standing by.

This decision can be interpreted in two ways. A genuine concern by WEA not to offend anyone by granting an exclusive to any one paper or radio station and thereby placing future WEA releases by other artists in jeopardy. Or a clever way of gaining maximum worldwide exposure to a duff LP, culminating in a massive hype.

In the end, NME were summoned to WEA and placed in a room with the tape of the LP and granted a hearing. Given the ability of Prince's music to grow in stature on each hearing, what follows must only be a cursory reading of what is easily his most off-beat statement to date.

'Sign O' The Times' contains 16 new songs and, quality aside, once again pays testimony to the man's musical unpredictabilty and insatiable appetite for new styles and moods.

Three of the songs, 'Starfish And Coffee', 'Slow love' and 'It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night' are co-written, the latter by Dr Fink and Eric Leeds, the man behind Madhouse, whose LP was recently released on Paisley park to critical acclaim.

Sheena Easton and a new singer by the name of Camille (who sounds suspiciously like Prince) also make guest appearances. Otherwise, the whole project has been written, composed, arranged and produced by Prince.

The first thing that has to be said is that this would be a stunning single LP. And if anyone knows that, it's Prince himself, the clue being the way he has arranged the running order of the LP.

Apart from the title track, and two other songs, sides one and two contains some of the weakest material Prince ever committed to vinyl. Most of the songs here sound like demos, and are vapid and totally underdeveloped. As a reaction to the 80's emphasis on over-production, it's a brilliant statement. In reality, it simply doesn't work.

Sides three and four act in total contrast to this selfindulgence. Songs such as 'U Got The Look', 'Strange Relationship', 'If I Was Your Girlfriend' and 'Adore' all compare favourably with the best of his work and remind us in no uncertain terms of his unique talent.

One can only assume that by balancing the LP between songs of such varying and extreme quality. Prince is not only asserting his total artistic control but publicly displaying his inability to resist throwing a very heavy spanner into his works.

On 'Sign O' The Times' Prince arrogantly flaunts his talent for writing unsurpassable contemporary music, the title track for one, and the laying himself wide open, warts and all. As with any artist of his calibre, his success rests not only with the music but the way in which that music is presented, the way in which it takes chances to further cement his self-made image as unique individual, answerable to no-one. For any other artist to put out an LP which contains demos would mean end of a career. For prince, it only enhances a career he has so far brilliantly stage-managed.

The music itself runs something like this:

'Sign O' The Times' Already the year's best single. A totally inventive and different musical collage bringing in elements of rap and funk over a harsh lyrical catalogue of modern ills. It also signals a change in Prince's stance. On '1999', Prince said, sod it, let's dance all night. Now he wants to settle down and have a child. A recurring the througout.

'Play in the sunshine' A throwback to the 50's, days of innocence (another recurring theme) with an early rough rock 'n' roll feel spiced with a heavy lead guitar.

'Housequake' Prince does his James Brown routine. "Shut up already, damn !" he barks as an opener before launching into a classic JB-meets-Clinton-meets-Prince dancefloor-style funk. One of the only songs from this side worth keeping.

'Ballad of Dorothy Parker' Weak Steely Dannish (really) soft funk that goes absolutely nowhere. One has to wonder about a mind that would want anyone to hear this.

'It' Another rough sounding song, more-Prince-like with a relentless beat, that keeps threatening to take off but never does. A homage to someone's sexual charms, this is dark and threatening stuff but somewhat off the mark.

'Starfish and Coffee' Memorable to NME readers for its assessment of our very own contributor, one Cynthia Rose. 'All of us were ordinary compared to Cynthia Rose" Prince croons over this straight 60's pop pastiche. Lyrics cowritten with Susannah, ex-of the Revolution, even The Bangles would have second thoughts about this one.

'Slow Love' A relaxed blues with lush orchestration interspersed with a big-band, '40s style arrangement. Prince goes to Frankie Sinatra and loses hands down.

'Hot Thing' The title alone will tell you that this is the kind of sassy funk that Prince is so adept at. Similair in places to the monstrous 'Sign O' The Times' but without the exhiliarating twists, this is still one of the few tunes that derserved to avoid the chop.

'Forever in my Life' A plea for fidelity and love forever reveals the changing face of Prince but the minimal music neither keeps the place or lodges in the memory. End of demos. Now for the LP.

'U Got the Look' Classic Prince with this strident mixture of rock and funk. Here he duets with Sheena Easton and the mysterious Camille with the kind of contagious song that just screams, 'Single!' Archetypal Prince and just one of the things he does best.

'If I Was Your Girlfriend' Opens up with an orchestra tuning up, the wedding march theme, and a strange voice that shouts, "look at the bargains on offer here, ladies". Adapting to his falsetto voice over an hypnotic, brooding groove, Prince switches genders to detail his romantic notions ending with the immortal line, "we'll try to imagine what silence looks like". A total charmer.

'Strange relationship' Harks back in tiny ways to his earlier sexual obsessions, yet this is to do with mental cruelty and classic love/ hate relatioinships. Prince seems genuinely bewildered that he "can't stand to see U happy, more than that I hate to see U sad". Another up tempo tune, bolstered by a thumping back beat and simple yet contagious melody.

'I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man' One of the few weak links over these two sides. Prince takes on The Cars and the sound of current American MTV pop and beats them. But then there's not much competitions to begin with - this song shows that.

'The Cross' Prince as a Catholic priest. Over a gentle guitar melody, he forsees the coming of God and urges us that despite all our problems, not to cry because, "He is coming, don't die without knowing the cross..." Just as he's about to take confessions, a horrendous army of rock guitars flood in and wash away all our sins. He's not parodying The Mission for nothing, you know.

'It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night' Recorded live in front of "6.000 adoring Parisians", this is an unfussy display of the kind of music similair to Kid Creole four years ago. Immaculately right, this is partytime Prince at its flashiest.

'Adore' Two years ago, Prince gave Mel'isa Morgan a song entitled 'Do Me Baby', a slow burning ballad that proved to be one of the highlights of her career. 'Adore' is in a similair vein, a sugar ballad that harks back to the Stylistics but is indelibly Prince's, a lush yet remarkable piece of music, and a fitting climax to the story so far.

-- Paolo Hewitt

April 27, 1987

"Sign O' The Times; Prince"

Whatever else he is -- and that list could go on for eight or nine pages -- nobody could ever say old Princey is predictable. On this panoply double album, he is all things to all people, two or three times over. In The Ballad of Dorothy Parker, he sings, "Earlier, I'd been talkin' stuff in a violent room/ Fighting with lovers past/ I needed someone with a quicker wit than mine/ Dorothy was fast."He turns out a rhythm-heavy prime bit of mindless funk on Hot Thing. On If I Was Your Girlfriend, he adds a rap, pointing out, "We don't have to make a baby to make love/ We don't have to make love to have an orgasm." On Adore, he takes a fluffy, de-souled pop tune and leads into a sharp, bluesy, overdubbed guitar exchange with himself, evoking thoughts of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. Then there is U Got the Look, born to be a dance hit. Most impressive is that, as disparate as the selections are, for the most part they seem to belong together. Even the title track fits in, despite being very sober in its reference to AIDS and the Challenger disaster (it also includes one of Prince's rare cliches, and an outdated one at that: "Sister killed her baby 'cause she couldn't afford to feed it and/ We're sending people to the moon"). The cohesive factor may be the detached tone of both the lyrics and music. Prince seems to be able -- on his records, anyway -- to avoid taking himself too seriously. Give the man credit: While all that posturing can be a royal pain, there is an accomplished musician behind the eye shadow. (Paisley Park)

--- Ralph Novak

New York Times
April 12, 1987

Prince Brews Up A More Danceable Album

ONLY PRINCE COULD LAND ''Sign o' the Times,'' a song about AIDS, drugs, sudden death and nuclear war, in the Top 10. And only Prince would conclude, after verses filled with deadpan alarmism, ''Let's fall in love, get married, have a baby.'' On his double album, ''Sign o' the Times'' (Paisley Park/Warner Bros. 25577, LP, cassette and CD), the one-man studio band from Minneapolis dispenses ambitious music, commercial know-how, calculated eccentricities and wacky obsessions, all thoroughly entangled. By now, his audience expects no less. In some ways, Prince has retrenched for ''Sign o' the Times.'' It's harder-edged, less orchestral and more danceable than his last two albums, ''Around the World in a Day'' and ''Parade.'' After his movie-video-record blockbuster, ''Purple Rain,'' whose soundtrack sold more than 10 million copies, those albums (and the film ''Under the Cherry Moon'') did comparatively poorly. But on ''Parade,'' especially, Prince was testing new musical territory - and now, moving like an inchworm, he's letting his tail catch up with his head. Dance grooves and all, ''Sign o' the Times'' reaffirms Prince's ambitions while reasserting his popularity.

From his first album, ''For You,'' in 1978, Prince presented himself as a pop Don Juan. He could be sweet or raunchy, girlish or macho-tough - a polysexual fantasy figure with bedroom eyes and a solid beat. But whereas most Don Juans eventually settle down or turn into self-parodies, Prince has found more varieties of desire. He's developed an urge to make big social and mystical statements, which usually come out confused; Prince is no deep thinker. But musically, he is appetite incarnate, as eager to conquer new pop, rock and soul styles as to capture new sexual thrills.

Prince has always tried to fuse opposites. He enumerated some of them in 1981 in ''Controversy'': ''Am I black or white/Am I straight or gay?'' He continues to juxtapose come-ons and professions of faith, regularly posing with a crucifix. And while one of rock's pleasures is the way musicians cooperate to create a groove, Prince has concocted most of his music by himself, overdubbing guitars, keyboards, percussion and voices in the studio. He's sacred and profane, black and white, male and female, juvenile and grown-up, sweet and nasty, communal and private.

While toying with those paradoxes, Prince has been grabbing every style he can find. In a way, he has to; the keyboard-driven funk that he synthesized from James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and disco is now dispensed by everyone from Ready for the World to Janet Jackson. Prince needs to stay ahead of his imitators; he's also looking over his shoulder at the Beatles and Sly Stone.

Superficially, ''Sign o' the Times'' suggests a throwback to Prince's last double album, ''1999.'' Both sets open with an apocalyptic dance tune, the title cut. Prince reclaims his old funk (in ''Housequake'' and ''Hot Thing''), gospel-soul (''Play in the Sunshine''), slow grind (''Slow Love'') and straightforward rock (''I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man''). And while ''Sign o' the Times'' takes a few tangents, most of the lyrics cut back on spaced-out fantasies and return to sex and seduction.

But there's been a change. Prince the seducer used to show contempt for his conquests; now, he seems to have matured slightly. He hints at more responsible hedonism - refusing to take advantage of a lonely woman in ''I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,'' vowing to settle down in ''Forever in My Life'' - and tries to sort out the self-destructive mechanisms of a ''Strange Relationship.'' Still, he's out for a good time in ''U Got the Look,'' ''Hot Thing,'' ''Slow Love'' and the near-androgynous ''If I Was Your Girlfriend.''

The music for ''Sign o' the Times'' is credited to Prince alone, plus guest singers and horn players; he has dropped the pretense that his touring band, the Revolution, participates much on his records (with one major exception, the nine-minute ''It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,'' recorded in concert). Yet virtually all by himself, Prince is a more versatile, more eclectic band than ever. Like the Beatles, he picks and chooses from everything that catches his ear, mixing allusions until they add up to something like originality.

''Starfish and Coffee'' is a sweet-tempered children's song that follows up the Beatles' aquatic-invertebrate ditty, ''Octopus's Garden.'' ''The Ballad of Dorothy Parker'' pulls together Steely Dan chords and the deflated sounds of Sly and the Family Stone's ''There's a Riot Goin' On'' (an album that's also echoed in ''Sign o' the Times'' and ''If I Was Your Girlfriend''). ''Adore'' updates the Spinners' smooth soul; ''The Cross,'' Prince's most openly Christian song yet, uses vaguely Indian-sounding guitar lines and tabla drumming in a raw, rocking hymn.

Prince isn't just rearranging ordinary songs; he's started to warp the songs themselves. After using Clare Fischer's orchestral arrangements on ''Parade,'' he now treats his own instruments orchestrally, balancing sustained versus raspy sounds, distortion against pure tone, nasal vocals against smooth ones. And just where songs generally wind down, Prince shifts harmonies, adds instruments or segues into a new rhythm -like a psychedelic band jamming, except that Prince is jamming with himself.

Prince clearly hopes to regain the commercial momentum he sacrificed with ''Around the World in a Day'' (which sold three million copies) and ''Parade'' (1.8 million). Yet he's not abandoning what he learned, he's consolidating it, extending his music while stripping away mumbo-jumbo. As a private, one-man band, Prince risks losing touch with the outside world - but on ''Sign o' the Times,'' he's decided that he can handle some everyday grit.

-- Jon Pareles


Published: Monday, March 30, 1987
Section: FTR
Page: 3C

pop: Prince's latest a mixture of styles

Sign O' the Times -- Prince (Paisley Park): With five albums of his own (including two double-record sets), a half-dozen production jobs, two films and three tours during the past four and a half years, you can't call Prince lazy. Or unambitious. The two-record "Sign," his ninth album, is his broadest outing yet, a largely one-person project that takes on a something- for-everyone range of musical styles and lyrical approaches. There's James Brown-style funk ("Housequake"), smooth Philly soul ("The Ballad of Dorothy Parker"), r&b crooning ("Adore"), sordid sexuality ("It," "Hot Thing"), peppy pop-rock ("I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," "U Got the Look"), psychedelia ("The Cross," "Starfish and Coffee") and a terrific stomper called "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," recorded live in Paris. Diversity has its pitfalls, however, and "Sign's" spare, high-tech numbers often sound like good ideas that were never finished. If he had lightened the workload and taken more time, "Sign" would be a killer album instead of an uneven, though noble, document of experimentation.




Sign Of The Times

After Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and Parade, Prince became a proper star. Sign Of The Times now seems like an early attempt to at once distance himself from the pop life and still have lots of hits. There's the title track, a deliberate attempt to take on rap's new harder direction (and a devastatingly bleak single); there's The Cross, redemption via a sludgy Velvet Underground riff; there's the extraordinary eroticism of If I Was Your Girlfriend; there's a duet with Sheena Easton on the classically 1987 pop hit U Got The Look - this is Prince as Sly Stone, pop funk with a dark edge to it, eclecticism and strangeness.





Thursday, April 2, 1987
Page: 56


By DAVID HINCKLEY, New York Daily News

For rock 'n' roll's premier chameleon, a double album means twice as many branches to leap onto and laugh merrily as the rest of us try to figure exactly where he went. Welcome back to the world of Prince, whose "Sign O' the Times" (due in stores this week) once more trips lightly from sex to sacred and serious to silly behind a beat that's as strong as it is lean.

He plays almost everything himself this time, and often that's little more than drums and guitar. Largely because of this, much of "Sign" harks back to the pre-"Purple Rain" days. Or earlier.

"Adore," for instance, starts off as a pure soul ballad, then flirts with a sound that could have come from the '40s. The interwoven vocal harmonies, which he's never done enough of, are impressive, and so is his singing on the other soul ballad, the sentimental "Slow Love." When you listen to that one, imagine it being performed by, say, Teddy Pendergrass.

It would be convenient if "Sign" could be capsulized into something as relatively clear as his typically strong title tune, which suggests gangs, guns and drugs are crazy, but so is a lot of other stuff in the world ("When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly - Some say a man ain't happy unless a man truly dies").

Before we catch our breath from that, however, we hear "Play in the Sunshine," performed on such a giddy upbeat you wonder if he wrote it for the Bangles and they tossed it for being too frothy. True, the punchline has a hint of darkness ("Before my life is done - Some way somehow I'm gonna have fun"), but mostly we have been reminded that with Prince, we are to assume nothing.

Consistency is not the dominant gene here. "The Cross," a soft, lovely gospel number reminiscent of his masterful acoustic "4 the Tears in Your Eyes," talks plainly about the eternal, then is followed immediately by ''It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," whose lines include this: "Tonight there's no tomorrow - This is gonna be the one."

Go figure.

One thing that does remain constant in Prince's songs is the male-female relationship, which he is in favor of. "It" ("Think about it all the time") sets the tone, and "U Got That Look" and "Hot Thing" don't let it slacken. "Hot Thing" ("Hot thing, barely 21 - Hot thing, looking 4 big fun") is the kind of song Prince loves to write, and probably loves to perform even more, knowing most of his fans will blush before he does.

Those tracks pale, however, next to an erotic tour de force called "If I Was Your Girlfriend," which makes "I'm on Fire" sound like an ode to celibacy.

The premise is that if he were your girlfriend (instead of your boy friend), he could hang around while you dressed and bathed and all that - and the more he sings and talks about it, the more carried away he gets with the possibilities. Suffice it to say Mr. Rogers won't be singing this one back in the Neighborhood.

Elsewhere on "Sign," "Strange Relationship" and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" discuss non-sexual kinks a relationship can develop. ''Forever in My Life," a strong, melodic quasi-gospel track, is about as humble as Prince has ever sounded on record. "Starfish and Coffee" could form a bookend to "Raspberry Beret" as catchy, good-natured fluff. "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" and "Housequake" don't mean much, but will be a lot of fun to play. "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" wraps sex talk around a tribute to Joni Mitchell.

It could be suggested that Prince has run the wicked chameleon act as far as he can and that he's repeating himself a bit these days. That's true. It's also true that "Sign O' the Times" can put your feet, your mind and most of the rest of your anatomy in motion. Prince may be hard to pin down, but he does understand what rock is all about.



Baby I'm A Star

No record all year has given me more sheer pleasure than the second disc of Prince's Sign of the Times. I listen to it over breakfast, on the way to work, on airplanes, with friends, alone, before going to sleep, every which way. Sometimes I stick it in boombox and listen to it in the shower. This is a shock to my system as well as to my friends, since I spent the first couple of weeks after its release slagging the record. Maybe I was warped by experience; hell, I tried to like Parade, and that episode left me a hard man, driven past any innocent credulity toward Prince. Besides which, I didn't want to like the album after hearing "Sign of the Times," four and a half minutes of social commentary that is less trenchant than trench-mouthed -- cocktail party criticism worthy of (and probably inspired by) Joni Mitchell's sanctimonious Dog Eat Dog. As a friend of mine put it, "Now there's a statement: Bad things are bad."

But pretty soon the record started to wear me down. I waited for the musical novelty to wear off and Prince's overweening preciousness to foul the proceedings, but aside from a few tracks on disc one, that never happened. Instead I started to hear a work of balance and beauty and ease, Prince has made records more consistently accessible to radio (there aren't any more singles on the album) and to the dance floor, but never has he made a record more successfully varied in style and mood.

Prince went back to his old modus operandi to make this record, working alone in the studio with an occasional guest dropping by to add a part. Perhaps for that reason, it sounds unself-conscious and revealing in a way that none of his recent albums with the Revolution have. "U Got the Look," a piece of sexy, bratty funk with Sheena Easton belting out the come-on and Prince playing the dancefloor tease, opens the second disc. It's a tough dance track, cast in a familiar sound and scene. But then the record takes a strange turn. "If I Was Your Girlfriend: might be the same guy a few hours later, after the bars close and he's at home alone practicing a line for his girlfriend. But unlike the typical Prince come-on, this isn't about getting laid or getting even; it's about feeling alone and struggling in vain to make the simplest, deepest connections. The song's profound loneliness is couched in envy: "If I was your girlfriend/Would you remember to tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man?/If I was your best friend/Would you let me take care of you/And do all the things that only a best friend can?" On the surface the tone is coy, but there's desperation beneath it. Try as he might, the singer can't bridge the gap with wordplay or cocksmanship, and he knows it.

This is quite a departure from the wounded soul who once spat out "Darling Nikki" in his spite and despair. Likewise, "Forever in My Life" and "Adore" are far and away the most ingenuous love songs Prince has ever written. (Come to think of it, they're two of the only love songs he's ever written. I can think of lots of Prince songs about lust and terror and self-obsession, but not love). I wince at calling songs like these evidence of "maturity," because that word has been applied to every Prince album since 1999, and it's always missed the point somehow. Words like "maturity" and "growth" are practically non-sequiturs when it comes to Prince, because they presume a continuity of style and purpose, and he's the one major artist in pop music today whose career has steadily defied any neat sense of continuity. All the milestones in his career have represented ruptures: Dirty Mind, coming after two albums of conventional '70s black pop, seemed to spring from nowhere; 1999's pop-funk apocalypse broke that genre open, and more than any other record defined the direction for crossover dance hits in the '80s; and Around the World in a Day reframed Prince's persona with an experimental art-rock fusion so surprising that it obscured for a while its own banality.

But if "maturity" is too loaded a word, there is still something that sets Sign of the Times apart from past Prince albums. Call it a sense of balance, maybe. It's most evident on side four, which pulls together several strands of Prince's recent music with a grace and economy no one could have anticipated. It opens with "The Cross," a spiritual quest song that starts as a ballad and builds to one of the most satisfying rock arrangements he's ever done. "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" casts Prince as James Brown-cum-Sly Stone big band funkmeister, leading the Revolution (in their lone appearance on the record) through an electrifying live jam. "Adore," a gorgeously arranged love ballad, consists of equal parts gospel harmonizing, Al Green phrasing, and Marvin Gaye sexual-healing lyrics.

Aside from the ease with which these three tracks show off Prince's musical range, a newfound emotional completeness also binds them. "The Cross" is pain and endurance (in place of the resolute piety of most of his religious songs, it substitutes a sense of real struggle); "Beautiful Night" is pleasure and release; and "Adore" is a bid for reconciliation and redemption through romantic love. This may be the first time the tenets of Prince's creed -- dancing, fucking, praying, loving -- have coalesced into something more like a vision than a shouting match between warring impulses.

The rest of the album can't possibly meet the symmetry of side four; for my money, much of disc one is forgettable. But a certain amount of fat is typical of double sets, and that doesn't mean Times could have been trimmed to one record. Like any double album worth the ride, it's sprawling precisely because it wrestles with matters of direction and identity, and finds no easy answers at hand. For Prince, the problem involves digging out from under the commercial and artistic rubble of the last two albums and Under the Cherry Moon. Despite all the variations of scene and costume, each of those projects shared a common obsession: Prince's mythologized image of himself. Having reached a dizzying plateau of stardom following Purple Rain, he apparently jumped to the conclusion that it was he and not his records that were the work of art, so he began to define his art largely in terms of embellishments to his own image. Around the World in a Day very self-consciously cast Prince as psychedelic renaissance man; Parade added a weird twist presenting him as a continental sophisticate to boot; and Cherry Moon dropped him in a freakish French Riviera setting that seemed like a poor kid's fevered dream of what it might be like to rub elbows with the rich and famous. Each of these works was more tied up with Prince's ego than his musical vision, and each seemed to wear and implicit sneer at the "mere" popular music he used to make.

And each successive project made the world Prince was creating seem more private and claustrophobic. What could have come next? A concept album about Prince as a reincarnation of Mozart, maybe? Cherry Moon's disastrous crash-and-burn was painful to watch, but Sign of the Times amounts to a pretty good case that it was good for him. He seems to have shaken himself awake; he has never seemed more nimble or assured than now. There are still lingering traces of the varied affectations he's tried on, but that's part of what the double record medium serves to work out. Mostly Sign of the Times is the work of an unabashed , unsurpassed pop master. For the first time in recent memory, Prince doesn't seem ashamed to be a pop star.