Stevie Wonder

It's nothing short of tragic that today most people identify Stevie Wonder with "I Just Called To Say I Love You," and think of him as just another adult contemporary/Motown entertainer. For years I thought the same of him -- I liked some of his oldies, but never believed that the goofy blind cat dueting "That's What Friends Are For," with Dionne Warwick could be taken as much more than a middleweight. Well, I was as wrong as wrong can be -- after casually picking up a copy of Innervisions (which you should run, run out and buy today!), my mind was blown by his awesome talent and now I've managed in the past year to aquire most of his '70s and '80s albums. The child prodigy turned into a giant of a stature reserved for all but the greatest of pop-rock performers -- he's as important and mindbending as any '60s or '70s rocker one can name, and his consummate professionalism and melodic invention make most of his peers seem hamfisted and clumsy. A multi-talent threat as a composer, singer, and instrumentalist, Wonder is probably more responsible than anyone for pushing R & B beyond its simplicity and generic boundaries into complex, sophisticated music that more than kept up with the innovations introduced by such rock artists as the Beatles -- and like the Fabs, Wonder is the most important artist of the '60s to balance thrilling experimentation with populist pop songs of humanity-affirming universality: it's as impossible to imagine someone not liking at least a few Wonder songs as it is to imagine someone, no matter what age or musical taste, not committing at least a few Beatles lyrics to poignant memory. He was instrumental in the early '70s of demonstrating the warm, human sounds that could be coaxed out of the synthesizer, of which he's the (very) rare performer to use in an intelligently musical manner. As one of the great pop universalists, I wholeheartedly recommend any of his peak '70s albums to fans of any form of pop music -- if his songs don't bring a smile to your face as you get the urge to sing along, then obviously pop music isn't for you. And this brings me to one last point before I get to the reviews: Wonder was a major commercial force in the '70s, scoring hit after hit -- but for some reason, which I suspect is due to the racist blockading of "classic rock" stations and the refusal of R & B stations to play any music that was around more than five years ago, his records aren't played on the radio anymore. Which brings my little essay full-circle -- for too many years I was left in the dark regarding the man's work, a situation which has now been gladly rectified.

I'm not going to try to list all of the many albums Wonder has released in his lengthy career; these albums reviewed below are simply the ones I have in my possession. I'll try to fill in the gaps as I go along, though I'm not holding out much hope for his pre-1970 career when he was simply a really talented youngster.

Music of My Mind (1972) ****1/2

I'll tell you right now, these ratings for Wonder's '70s albums are all going to be very high, in the **** to ***** range, but it's true -- the kid genius was at the peak of his powers during the decade, and it's almost impossible to choose between the musical riches. One of the first fruits of Wonder's wresting complete artistic control away from the Motown assembly line (as a denizen of Detroit, Berry Gordy based his company on the Ford formula, to the detriment of the music), this album establishes Wonder as a major talent -- the shocking thing is, that good as this album gets, his next pair of albums are even better. Wonder tosses off goodtime, bouncily rocking R & B and perfectly syncopated ballads with equal aplomb, as if he could do all this in his sleep: "Love Having You Around," (dig that, "Everyday I get on my camel and ride") is the best funky fast number here, while "Happier Than The Morning Sun" ranks as one of Wonder's finest-ever ballads; he writes the kind of ballads that seem as warm and natural sounding as that title. Or is the greatest slow ballad on here the post-breakup bitterness of "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You?)"? Okay, so "Evil," ends the album on something of a letdown, and the ballads and uptempo tunes don't peak as high as the peak highs on the next few albums, but so what? -- just about all of the songs are good-to-great anyway.

Talking Book (1972) *****

It's very hard to choose between this and the subsequent year's album; both rank at the very top of albums released by anyone in the '70s. Wonder once remarked that Talking Book had his best songs, but that Innervisions worked together better as an album -- and he's more than likely right. While it doesn't flow together as well as Innervisions, the individual tracks are among Wonder's greatest work. Again, my two favorite songs are a ballad and a rocker -- but just look at what ballad and what rocker they are: "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life," which calls to mind a certain song from the earlier part of this century with almost the same title written by a Southern governor, and is just as universal a standard; and "Superstition," which rocks as deep and hard as anything the Stones were doing at the time. And what's more, the rest of the album maintains that breathtaking standard. The chorus of "I Believe" conveys a joyous revelatory experience as powerfully as any I've heard, while ballads such as "Tuesday Heartbreak" and "Blame It On The Sun," are stunningly moving and melodic examples of pure, effortless craft. Affirming his roots, the thick, slow choruses of "You've Got It Bad Girl" and "Maybe Your Baby" are pure slices of deep soul. There's really not much more for me to say about this album, 'cause I honestly don't have anything bad to say -- why quibble with perfection? Well, Wonder isn't more than a competent lyricist, and these are all mostly normal love songs (except for "Superstition" and the somewhat cloying "Big Brother") -- all of which would change on the next album...

Innervisions (1973) *****

If you don't have this already, then stop right now, proceed to the nearest record store, buy it, sit down and listen.

I'm serious -- this album is essential to any collection. Wonder's political side emerges on this release, which notches the intensity level up, which is a good thing -- there are a few lovely love songs, but the bulk of the lyrics on this album show substantial growth, with more depth than Wonder had previously demonstrated. The opener, "Too High," captures both the ecstacsy and desperation of a chronic addict, and it seamlessly flows into "Visions," Wonder's meditation on his major handicap -- he only knows that leaves are green because other people tell him so. One can see this as a quasi-concept album dealing with American social ills circa 1973 (a year in which we had a lot of those ills), which Wonder addresses most bluntly and powerfully in the epic anger of "Livin' For The City," one of the greatest social protest songs ever written -- even its dated, somewhat silly dramatic interlude works as an eloquent testimonial of shattered urban dreams. "Golden Lady," is another typical Wonder love ballad, nothing he hasn't done before but so what, it's wonderful. "Higher Ground," a hit years later for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and "Jesus Children of America," continue Wonder's musings on the state of the nation (though the dated reference to Transcendental Meditation in the latter irks). "All In Love Is Fair," again finds Wonder delivering another effortlessly brilliant love ballad, while "Don't You Worry Bout A Thing," and "He's Misstra Know-It-All," end the album on jauntily lovely high notes -- pure joy.

Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974) ****

Recorded after a near-fatal car accident, this album is generally regarded as something of a letdown for Stevie fans, and it is -- but only when compared to the brilliance of the previous three albums (and the next album). Nearly all of the songs are good, though there's a decided lack of intensity as Wonder concentrates on more melancholy, balladic material -- obviously a near death experience shook him up a bit, as even the faster boogie numbers have a tinge of sadness (except for the slightly embarassed-sounding expression of lust, "Boogie On Reggae Woman"). "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away," is a particularly poignant meditation on mortality, and one of my favorite Wonder tunes for that reason; the rest of the ballads follow a similar pattern, though with generally less stellar results. Several of the songs near the end of the album tend to meander, closing the album on a weak, rather boring note; but the album does contain such classics as the slightly eerie "Creepin'" and its sole angry political rant (which gives this album an energy boost it sorely needs) "You Haven't Done Nothin'" a stinging attack on Nixon.

Songs in the Key of Life (1976) *****

The key to judging double albums - particularly double albums that are nearly two hours in length -- is the answer to the question: How much dross to filter out? Amazingly, there's very little to toss out -- some of the songs go on a bit too long, but mostly the lengths are justified, and while several of these songs are a bit lackluster, you'll barely notice the filler when surrounded by mountains of brilliant gem after gem. This is Wonder's tour de force -- find me one album which has as many great songs as this one. Well, the White Album, of course, which is a convenient parallel -- this as close as anyone has ever come to an R & B version of the Beatles' masterpiece, and what's more, it's the product of one individual's talent. With so many brilliant performances, the only problem is absorbing it all. There are the uptempo hits: "Sir Duke," an ode to the giants of black music; "Isn't She Lovely," an ode to something else entirely, a baby. "Saturn" improbably remains stirring despite the goofy naive science-fiction utopianism; "Village Ghetto Land," is an even better address on society's ills in the Wonder's politicized mode. "Have A Talk With God," recommends spirituality as an answer to the world's problems, while the instrumental "Contusion," sounds like a Steely Dan tribute. And then there's the song you all know, the chilling "Pastime Paradise," which Coolio used as the basis (hell, it's practically a cover) for his "Gangster's Paradise". I'd trim the lengthy didactic coda of "Black Man," but I'm hard pressed to figure out what else I would -- of the 21 songs and two hours of music on these two discs, a shocking amount are excellent-to-brilliant.

The Secret Life of Plants (1979)

I've only got the second half of this, so I can't really review it, but what I've heard is something of a letdown: Wonder indulges in proto-ambient muzak, writing less real songs. Critics wrote this off as self-indulgent when it came out; it's not as bad as they said, but this definitely isn't the place to start.

In a Sqare Circle (1985) ***

The '80s find Wonder, like many of his peers, running out of ideas -- where once he controlled the synthesizers to fit his musical needs, now the synthesizers are controlling his music, forcing some actually solid tunes in a bland mid-'80s rut (and those programmed drums definitely don't help - do they ever?). "Part Time Lover," was the hit, and it's definitely catchy and near-classic Stevie, but it's too commercially oriented and close to anonymous early '80s synth-soul for comfort. He buries one of his best ballads, "Overjoyed," near the end of side two, which shows that he'd lost touch with his strengths; the rest of side two consists mostly of grating political numbers -- "Spiritual Walkers," an ode to flakey cults, is dumb and slightly offensive; "Land of La-La," isn't that bad, really, but it's certainly no "Livin' In The City"; I can't argue with the message of "It's Wrong (Apartheid)" but musically it's completely uninvolving. Side one is a bit better, as Wonder hasn't lost his touch with balladry and choruses, but the songs all go on too long and the dated production hurts. In sum, not that bad; mildly entertaining, but from Stevie I expect a lot more.

Characters (1987) **1/2

Now this is completely dull and uninvolving. It starts off relatively enjoyable, as Wonder meditates on the problems of such outsiders as drug addicts and single parents, but by the end of side one, I'm almost asleep as one facelessly performed midtempo number slides past the other. Some of the tunes are catchy, admittedly ("In Your Corner") but even those misfire slightly; "Galaxy Paradise," has a nice dark melody until you realize it's a rewrite of guess-what. On "Get It," Wonder duets with the dreaded Micheal Jackson (yeah, I realize the guy's shifted tragazillion units of plastic and aluminum, but so what. M.J.'s only made two decent albums in his solo career, and looking back, Thriller was seriously loaded with way too much filler -- sorry, I can't stand his constipated singing tics when he tries to act "street"). And the entire album goes on way too long -- at an hour's length, it's hard to stay awake for an entire sitting (which wasn't a problem with Songs In The Key Of Life because the songs were so great -- but these songs aren't even remotely of that caliber). There's not a single Wonder classic in sight, and only completist fans really need this.

The Jungle Fever Soundtrack (1991) ***1/2

Surprisingly, Wonder turned around and released his best work in years for a soundtrack to a Spike Lee movie. It's lightweight, but it sounds fresher than anything he's done in a long time; this doesn't hold a candle to his '70s work, but it is solidly entertaining. His ballads are still bland and insipid ("Lighting Up The Candles," "These Three Words," "I Go Sailing") but despite such inconsistencies, there are enough good tunes to make this album worth your while. The title track is a silly throwaway, but it's really catchy and hard to get out of your head; "Fun Day," actually manages to sound fun, against all odds (there's nothing less fun than enforced fun, after all). The highlight is the catchiest number Wonder's written in years, "Chemical Love," which really is classic Stevie, and actually has some lyrical depth - we've all got our own jones to fill. But go see the flick first, 'cause Spike is one of my favorite directors.

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