ALBUM REVIEW : PRINCE: BACK TO HIS SENSES

'SIGN 'O' THE TIMES." Prince. Warner Bros.

Prince has finally come to his senses. On his new two-record set, he's gone back to the dance music turf he explored in 1982 in "1999," by far his best album. This one, too, is mostly very good.

Like most Prince albums, it's mainly dark, murky and sexy. Prince is too savvy to rehash material, and the new work is more soulful, sinister and definitely more obtuse than "1999." Rather than simple dance music with throwaway lyrics, it's oblique, often absorbing funk-rock.

His explorations of other genres, while commercially successful, have been artistic duds. "Purple Rain" was basically cloying pop-rock. It merely proved that he had figured out the tastes of the masses and knew how to pander to them. "Around the World in a Day" is psychedelic claptrap. On "Parade," he seemed caught in musical limbo, not sure where to proceed.

On this largely one-man effort, Prince seems rejuvenated. When working in dance music, he never seems to flounder, as he does in other genres. There's an undeniable charm and vitality to his dance-music pieces that's missing in his other work.

Prince really pushes his vocal range to its limits on "Sign." His natural singing voice--high and thin, but uncannily expressive--is preferable because his falsetto can be grating. That voice he uses on 'Housequake"--strangely similar to Alvin the Chipmunk's--is also annoying.

The best songs in this set are down-to-earth, soulful dance numbers, like "Housequake," "Hot Thing" and the live "It's Going to Be a Beautiful Night."

A few flagrant pop pieces, like "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," are tossed in lure the masses, but the real failures on "Sign 'o' the Times" are the more conventional ballads, "Slow Love" and "Adore." The most intriguing song is the lewdly pulsing "If I was Your Girlfriend," which is highlighted by a terse, racy rap and a stark, chilling climax. More than any of the other new tunes, this one shows how really provocative Prince can be.

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