Prince | Sign O’ the Times-Super Deluxe Edition | (Rhino/Warner Brothers)
5 out of 5 stars
There are workaholic musicians and then there was Prince.
In his prime, as on the period represented by 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, it seems he was a bottomless pit of talent, creating a head spinning amount of music that continues to influence other artists over three decades after its release. Prince’s intrepid combination of funk, jazz, disco, soul, gospel, folk and pop all swirled together with a heaping helping of sex, drugs, religion and rock and roll sounded like little that came before…or after.
The 2019 five CD deluxe 1999 reissue was, it appears, just the tip of Prince’s vault clearing iceberg. This baby ups the ante (and price point) with eight CDs plus a concert DVD and a lavish 120 page hard backed book, cranking the retail list to nearly $160 (there are a variety of smaller, less inclusive, variations at more affordable rates). To put it mildly, it’s A LOT of Prince.
This everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach has its limitations. The initial double disc was already a mega trip through Prince’s psyche (he plays almost every instrument) and diverse influences. This expansion adds three full CDs packed with 45 previously unreleased tracks recorded, again mostly solo, by the multi-talented artist. It makes virtually everything worth hearing, and some not, finally available for what can only be called the Prince completist. Not surprisingly there is a fair amount of inconsequential, or less consequential, material mixed in with the shining, now uncovered gems. How many will want to hear the 10 minute mix of “Sign O’ the Times”’ B-side “La, La, La, He, He” let alone the backwards tape of “Nevneah Ni Ecalp”(the original Lisa vocal of “Heaven in Place” is also included) is unclear. But like everything else, it’s here for the taking.
The mouthwatering combination of Prince with Miles Davis on “Can I Play With U” turns out to be generally disappointing with Miles pretty much phoning in his muted trumpet part on a song that isn’t that great to begin with. And two extra versions of “Housequake” where Prince’s voice is speeded up to sound like he’s singing on helium (as it also is on the rarity “Cosmic Day”) are for dedicated followers only.
But the previously unreleased DVD concert recorded Dec. 31, 1987 at Paisley Park and nearly two hours of a typically sizzling audio-only live show recorded at Utrecht are nearly worth the price of the more costly package. Audience noise on the latter is almost non-existent, the audio quality is immaculate and the show is a stomping great time. The 3 ½ minute version of “Forever In My Life” on the studio album is extended to over 13 minutes as Prince (on acoustic guitar) goes full blown falsetto, turning it inside/out for a show stopping concert highlight. The encore of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” also inflates to 13 minutes but in neither case does this feel overdone.
What this sprawling set ultimately shows is Prince at his most experimental. Selections like the quirky “Wally,” one of the many vault tracks that doesn’t entirely click, illustrate the artist pushing his boundaries; on that occasion into almost show-tune territory. And he should probably leave the reggae to Bob Marley on the watery “There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool.” Yet the funk pop of “I Need a Real Man” (apparently initially written for Bonnie Raitt!), is as impressive as anything on the final album, making this a true lost gem.
At nearly 10 hours of music, the “super deluxe” bundle is too much for any but the most committed. But the edited editions include some of the best stuff, leaving the rest for the Prince faithful. And if anyone was unsure of just how talented, creative and prolific Prince was at his inspired peak, this fully loaded box solidifies his legacy as a true American icon.