by Nelson George
April 30 2016
Choosing a single high point from Prince’s glorious run in the ’80s is impossible, but Sign o’ the Times surely stands as his most complex and varied statement.
即便在Prince创作黄金期的八十年代选出一张作品代表其顶峰不太可能，但Sign o’ the Times当之无愧是他最具复杂性和变化性的艺术呈现。
In 1987, Prince Rogers Nelson was in transition. He’d disbanded the Revolution, the band that had backed him since Purple Rain. He’d toyed with doing a collaborative album with Revolution members Wendy & Lisa, but also abandoned that. He’d put a lot of time into crafting a record around an alter ego called Camille, whose tracks were recorded with his voice pitched to sound even more womanly than his trademark falsetto. But that too had stalled.
1987年对于Prince Rogers Nelson的艺术生涯来说无疑是承上启下的一年：在此不久前，他的那支自Purple Rain以来被冠名为“The Revolution”的伴奏乐队正式解散；抱着玩票心态与乐队成员Wendy & Lisa合作的一项音乐计划宣告搁浅；包括他曾花费不少时间制作的一张围绕其第二人格“Camille”展开的专辑——尽管他在这张专辑里有意让自己的声音听上去比他标志性的假声还要女性化，最后也还是不了了之了。
The album he released on March 31, 1987 was a Prince solo record that, like his 1980 artistic breakthrough Dirty Mind and his two earlier albums, was essentially a one-man-band recording which relied heavily on the LinnDrum, various samplers, and his remarkable aptitude on every instrument under the sun. Of the 16 songs on Sign o’ the Times, only three have co-writers, and save for one track (“It’s Going to Be a Beautiful Night”), outside musical accompaniment is slight. In a sense, Prince’s major musical collaborator at this point was his engineer Susan Rogers, who recorded him at different studios in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and even Paris.
这张名为Sign o’ the Times的专辑发行于1987年3月31日。和他的首专二专还有他于1980年推出的具有艺术突破意义的三专Dirty Mind一样，没有The Revolution助阵的Sign o’ the Times录制团队本质上即为他一人——由一位多面手音乐家组建的“一人乐队”：Linn LM-1电子鼓、各式各样的采样器、还有他对各种乐器无与伦比的天赋与才能构筑了这张专辑的全部。在这16首曲目中只有三首是与他人共同创作。而除了“It’s Going to Be a Beautiful Night”以外，剩下的歌曲鲜有其他乐手的伴奏。从某种意义上讲，Prince在这张专辑里的主要合作人其实是他的录音师Susan Rogers。为了帮其录制她曾辗转至明尼阿波利斯、洛杉矶甚至巴黎三处不同的录音室。
But unlike his earlier solo efforts, Sign o’ the Times wasn’t a record by an ambitious kid trying to make impression. At 28, Prince had already made himself into a pop superstar (and movie star too), and he easily sold out arenas. In one sense, he had nothing to prove. Yet Sign o’ the Times is the most varied, accomplished record of his prime 1980s period, a testament to the range of his gifts and the bold artistic ambition that gave his music shape.
但与之前的solo时期情况有所不同的是，此时的Prince已经28岁，演出场场售罄的他显然已将自己打造为一名成功的流行巨星（同时也是一位电影明星），所以Sign o’ the Times绝不再是一个野心勃勃的乐坛新星为了崭露头角招徕关注而创作的专辑。可以这么说，他已无需再向世人证明什么了。但Sign o’ the Times却被证明是Prince八十年代巅峰期的一张完成度最高、内容最复杂的作品，也进一步证明了他的多面手才能以及给予他音乐灵魂的艺术雄心。
Part of Prince’s drive was that he was keenly aware that hip-hop was rising up and shifting the sound of music. Rap was entering its “golden age,” and its mix of gritty storytelling and dope beats had to be reckoned with. (Michael Jackson would release Bad, his own answer to hip-hop, six months later.) So the title cut, with Prince’s commentary on the issues of the day (“a big disease with a little name,” mentions of crack and gang violence) and minimalist Run-DMC-styled production, made clear that Prince had his ear to the street. The song functions as Prince’s version of “The Message,” and, as crazy as that sounds, it works.
促使Prince创作这张专辑的一部分原因是他敏锐地觉察出蓬勃兴起的hip-hop正潜移默化中改变着当下乐坛的走向。因此处于黄金时期的说唱乐其直言不讳的歌词文本还有它让人上瘾的鼓点节拍自然成为了音乐人纳入考量范围的要素。（Michael Jackson在六个月之后同样发行了Bad用以回应这个“嘻哈当道”的世界。）Sign o’ the Times标题曲制作上的极简气质像是传承自说唱组合Run-D.M.C，而充斥其中的对艾滋病和黑帮暴力的针砭时弊也体现出Prince对街头文化细致的研究和观察。
Prince wasn’t just wrestling with fresh energy from the streets on Sign o’ the Times, but with the twin pillars of carnality and spirituality that had defined his career and that of black popular music for decades. For this Minneapolis native, it wasn’t so much a battle between sin and salvation, as it was how the warring desires could become one, synthesized through innovative arrangements, seductive yet fraught lyrics, and that remarkable voice.
当然Prince在Sign o’ the Times 中并不仅是充入了街头文化的新鲜血液，情色性与精神上的超然性作为数十年以来黑人流行音乐的标志依旧是他作品里的两大支柱。不过对于这个出生于明尼阿波利斯的非裔音乐家而言，比起罪恶与救赎这两个永恒的议题之间的矛盾，如何将经合成器处理的前卫编曲、充满着性诱惑又不失含蓄婉转的歌词内容，还有他那无与伦比的天赐歌喉等等看似冲突的元素融为一体显得困难多了。
“Forever in My Life,” for example, has the sincere melody of early Sly and the Family Stone. It sounds ready made for optimistic sing-a-longs. At first, you think it’s a simple love song, but there’s a devotional quality (“You are my savior/You are my life”) that makes it a chant of piety. At the same time, songs like “Hot Thing” and “It” are aggressively sexual, but in the context of the electronic, oddly-pitched sounds around the words, they seem more like the search for human connection and transcendence rather than a roll in the hay.
就拿“Forever in My Life”来说，这首有着类似Sly and the Family Stone早期真挚旋律的歌曲简直就像是为气氛活跃的歌咏会专门创作的。起先你可能会以为它不过是一首单纯的情歌。但歌词中“你是我的救赎者，是我生命的全部” (“You are my savior/You are my life”) 则为歌曲平添了庄重的宗教色彩，让它听起来像是一首虔诚的祷告。无独有偶，诸如“Hot Thing”还有“It”这样的歌曲虽然究其表面涉及的无非是露骨而不加粉饰的性爱话题，可歌中穿插的各种稀奇古怪的电子音效让它们听上去更像是对人际关系以及灵魂超脱等深刻问题的探讨，而并非仅是描绘两个炮友在草堆里打滚野战那么简单。
The album’s two ballads, “Slow Love” (co-written by singer-songwriter Carol Davis) and “Adore,” are both showcases for Prince’s vocal prowess. The man was an encyclopedia of vocal styles, able to croon like a 1950s pop star on the nostalgic “Slow Love” and do ’60s soul style on “Adore.” Though equally adept at showy vocal riffs and screaming in tune, Prince’s lower, cooler register seems to express his truest self.
专辑的另两首抒情曲“Slow Love”（与创作歌手Carol Davis共同谱写）和“Adore”是Prince演唱能力的极致体现。Prince在富有复古情调的“Slow Love”中像一位五十年代的流行歌星一般低吟浅唱着，而在“Adore”中他又运用六十年代灵魂乐的唱法来演唱，宛如一本活生生的人类唱腔百科全书。无论是在重复乐段中出现的炫技唱法，还是在相对着调的曲段发出的尖叫嘶吼，Prince都能做到游刃有余。当然他作为流行巨星最真实的自我，往往要依靠他较为低沉的音域才能表达出来。
Prince’s ability to move between genres made him a unique musical chameleon with Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney his only peers at the highest levels of pop. While he was often compared to Wonder, especially early in his career, it’s the ex-Beatle who seemed to have the most enduring influence. McCartney’s story-song sketches on The White Album helped define his career. For Prince, they were just one of many tools. His whimsical profiles of an odd elementary school classmate (“Starfish & Coffee”) and a quirky lover with the name of a celebrated New Yorker writer (“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”) are lovely stories supported by surreal sounds and beats, suggesting you are on psychedelic journey through Prince’s memories.
Prince像变色龙一样游走于各类音乐流派的能力在同僚中大概只有Stevie Wonder以及Paul McCartney 这两位流行音乐界的巨擘可以与之匹敌。尽管长期以来尤其是在早期人们总把他和Wonder相提并论，但实际上这名前披头士乐队成员才是对其影响最为深远的艺术家。McCartney为The White Album创作的几首叙事歌谣曾展露出足以称得上是其创作顶峰的故事速写能力，而这一点对于Prince来说仅仅是他词作才能的冰山一角。无论是疑患孤独症的小女孩(“Starfish & Coffee”)，还是借用《纽约客》著名评论家之名的古怪情人(“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”)，Prince对这些人物天马行空的刻画描写在极具超现实感的声效和鼓点下让听众仿佛置身于他自己的记忆汪洋里，继而开启了一段迷幻旅程。
Sign o’ the Times is difficult to grapple with because there’s so much going on in each track. The up-tempo “Play in the Sunshine” drops in jazz fusion riffs and choral voices just when you think its winding down. “The Cross” starts as a mournful song of devotion to Christ with acoustic guitar and sitar before exploding into a huge rock anthem with military drums and fuzz guitar. “Play in the Sunshine” opens with the sound of kids at play, becomes a rockabilly song, transitions midway into a guitar showcase, and then, with a marimba, a different drum pattern, and cleverly arranged backing voices, it ends a musical world away from where it began.
Sign o’ the Times的不可捉摸体现在每支曲目都有着峰回路转般的莫测高深。比如 “Play in the Sunshine”在你以为歌曲结束时突然又出现了近半分钟的糅合了唱诗声并带着融合爵士风格的连复段。又比如“The Cross”乍一听像是用原声吉他伴奏的耶稣悼歌，随后又转变成一首充斥着军鼓声和吉他失真声的摇滚圣歌。“Play in the Sunshine”开头像是采样了儿童嬉戏声，紧接着演变成一首山地摇滚，中途还加入了吉他的即兴表演。最后所有的华丽在清脆圆润的马林巴琴，丰富多样的鼓点节奏还有巧妙编排的背景人声下完美谢幕，让人怀疑歌曲的开头和结尾究竟是不是同一首歌。
“Housequake” is, perhaps, the most obvious songs on the album, a funk jam that would have been a hit single if he’d allowed it to be released as such. But the care of the track’s construction belies any shallow analysis. It starts with a cartoony voice (maybe a Camille reference), a synthesized drum heavy with echo, then adds bass, keyboard stabs, and rhythm guitar. The synth drum and snare drum merge while there’s a double-beat on the kick. Live horns come it and the bass line moves as there’s both a synth bass keyboard and a live bass doing playing different lines. Various backing vocals float in and out with Prince doing his James Brown impersonation as singer/MC. Compared to the simple loops of your average club banger, “Housequake” is a symphony of syncopation. The beat moves even as it grooves.
Because Prince played and recorded the album using now-vintage late ’80s technology there are moments when certain sounds, particularly the drums, are clearly of their era. But these sonic distractions don’t last as the scope of the songs, the musicianship, and overall arrangements are just too glorious to nitpick. Sign o’ the Times is a double album made with a restlessness that never allows it to settle into complacency or formula. It’s a soundtrack to a highly charged and specific period, for both Prince and his listeners. I remember partying to “Housequake” in the summer of ’87, laughing along with “Starfish & Coffee,” and playing “Adore” for my girlfriend when it was time to get busy. All these years later, it’s still a vibrant thing, the product of a great artist at the height of his powers.
Prince在演奏和录制Sign o’ the Times时使用的都是八十年代末期的技术手段，因此很多音效一听就能辨别其属于那个时代。尽管这些音效对于当今的听众来说可能会略显陈旧，但是瑕不掩瑜，这张专辑的整体构思及其散发出的十足的匠气仍然无可挑剔。这是一张从头至尾流露着躁动与不安的双碟专辑，而这份躁动不安使得歌手既没有陷入自满的泥淖，也没有落入俗套的窠臼。八十年代的美国社会笼罩在物欲横流及末日恐慌之下，Sign o’ the Times就像一张针对这一特殊时期的纪录片原声带，不仅是给听众听，同样也是给Prince自己听。我还记得专辑发行那一年的夏天在派对上放着“Housequake”和朋友们狂欢；我还记得听到“Starfish & Coffee”时曾露出会心一笑；我还记得和恋人行床笫之欢时耳边回荡着“Adore”的水乳交融。多少年过去了，Prince这位卓越的艺术家举其全盛之力打造的这张旷世经典，却依旧振聋发聩如初。