Let’s talk about Crystal Ball for a minute. Not the song. The album. I’ve often referred to it as Prince’s Great Vault Cleaning of 1998, but it was so much more than that. Crystal Ball could’ve (should’ve?) been the greatest album of Prince’s career. Much of what is known now as Sign ‘O’ the Times was originally slated to be a part of the triple album Crystal Ball. Let’s go back to 1986…
Prince and the Revolution had completed Parade and it was set for release in March. As was customary for Prince, he had already moved on to the next project before the last one dropped. Prince had moved in to a new home with his fiancé, Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin), and it included an impressive studio. Prince didn’t have to leave his home to record, which was convenient because he seemed to be even more prolific than normal during this time. According to Wendy on a recent episode of the Prince Official Podcast Prince, Wendy, and pianist/keyboardist Lisa Coleman would record songs and Prince would say, “Let’s save it for Dream Factory.” Dream Factory became the album where their most unique work would go. I got the impression it was their experimental album. According to princevault.com Dream Factory underwent three different configurations in mid-1986. The final version contained many of the songs you know now from Sign ‘O’ the Times along with a handful of other songs like “Crystal Ball” and the recently released “Witness 4 the Prosecution.” In late-July of 1986 Wendy and Lisa split with Prince and Dream Factory was scrapped. Thankfully, the music was not.
Later in 1986 Prince began work on another project known as Camille. Camille was the name Prince used for the vocal effect he put on his voice to make it higher. If you’ve heard classics like “Housequake,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” or “Shockadelica” you know what I’m talking about. Prince was fully prepared to release the album in January 1987. It had a catalog number with Warner Brothers, a track listing, and a design for an album cover. Instead, Prince abandoned that album as well for a bigger idea.
By late-November, 1986, Prince had compiled an ambitious triple album called Crystal Ball. This project contained songs from Dream Factory and Camille, as well as a few songs that hadn’t been considered for either project including one of my favorites, “Joy in Repetition,” which wasn’t released until 1990 as part of the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. It’s not 100% clear to me what happened to the November 1986 version of Crystal Ball. Stories I’ve heard and read over the years lead me to believe that Warner Brothers would not allow Prince to release a triple album. Instead he went back to the studio and turned his 22-track Crystal Ball in to 15 tracks. He recorded one more song, “U Got the Look,” in December, and those 16 tracks became the Sign ‘O’ the Times we all know and love now.
The song “Crystal Ball” went in to the vault until 1998 when Prince released the triple CD we all know now as Crystal Ball. The 1998 version of Crystal Ball mostly consists of vault tracks from 1985-1986 and 1993-1996 along with some remixes of previously released songs.
Speaking to Andrea Swensson recently on the Prince Official Podcast, Susannah Melvoin spoke about how she and Prince elevated each other creatively and how “Crystal Ball” was conceived in that environment. While Prince recorded Susannah worked on her art and spoke specifically of a mural in the house she created that inspired the song. Melvoin referred to “Crystal Ball” as, “The longest period of recording I’d seen him do on one song and not be frustrated by it.” The result was a sprawling 10:28 journey complete with an orchestra. It takes nearly 2:00 before you hear the Camille-distorted voice of Prince. What starts with sparse drum machine and keyboard builds over the course of several minutes. Guitar and orchestra build and Susannah Melvoin’s voice can be heard singing backup. Remember, Susannah also sang lead vocals on Prince’s underrated 1985 side project “The Family.” At one point Prince sings:
As soldiers draw swords of sorrow
My baby draws pictures of sex
All over the walls in graphic detail
I’m guessing he’s referring to the mural Susannah was working on in their house, which sounds interesting as hell. By the end of “Crystal Ball” we’re listening to classic Prince funk. What starts out with sparse drums and keys explodes into something completely different as Prince is screaming over what feels like every instrument you’ve ever heard in your life. Toward the end as it winds down Prince says
As bombs explode around you and hate advances on your right
The only thing we can be sure of is the love we make tonight
Yet another Prince reference to making love at the end of the world. With that the song starts to fade out the same way it started…then Prince hits you with one more burst of funk before he exits. “Crystal Ball” is a rollercoaster ride. It’s fun and every turn is unexpected.
“Crystal Ball” is the first track on the 1998 version of Crystal Ball and it should also be considered the centerpiece. There are some throwaway remixes and vault songs on this album, but “Crystal Ball” is a shining example of Prince’s creativity in the mid-1980’s. It should’ve seen the light of day before 1998.