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Class B

Main Category: Soul Music
Also applicable: Funk/R&B, Pop Rock, Lush Pop
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day




Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Stevie Wonder fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Stevie Wonder fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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As a prelude, I would want to point out that Stevie Wonder is overrated. Not a lot - a little. As much as I respect and love the guy, he receives way too much praise and gushing of unrestrained love from virtually every single critic and reviewer in existence. It's not difficult to see why - Stevie breathed so much love, passion and devotion into his music himself that as soon as you put on a Stevie Wonder record, that love envelops you and puts you completely under its spell, sort of like unscrewing the cap of a teargas container. Nevertheless, I do not think his melodic skills, not to mention the diversity of his musical stylistics, really match the skills of such untouchable greats as Lennon or McCartney; and sometimes his albums take a really long time to get into, unlike... well, unlike some others. And now, having deflated the Stevie balloon a wee wee bit, so as not to get carried too far away, I can proceed and tell you how great the guy really is. In case you didn't know it - which is hardly possible. After all, everybody in the world loves Stevie (except for a certain reviewing gentleman whose tastes are one thing), and it's a rare case when I happily follow suite.

Normally I tend to get a bit sceptical towards all the Motown deal. Don't get me wrong: Motown soul and funk artists have produced their share of great music, and have served as one of the primary inspiration sources for pretty much every Sixties' rock'n'roll band alive. But I can only accept Motown production in limited dozes, or, better, if covered by other artists - such as those very Sixties' rock'n'roll bands. The problem is that Motown was pretty much a factory - putting out mass production at an alarmingly fast rate, churning out bands, albums, and hit singles like pancakes. With their highly professional songwriters, alarmingly professional musicians, and deeply talented singers, this was as high quality mass production as it ever gets; yet mass production it was, and pretty much every Motown band - the Supremes, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the Four Tops, etc. - however good they were, still carry the unfortunate stamp of conservatism, lack of sincerity, and above all, the Dollar. Which is why I will most probably never, ever review any stereotypic Motown band on this site, not in the "regular format", at least; my heart simply isn't at all predisposed towards that kind of conveyer-related music, even if on a purely technical level I have absolutely nothing against Motown (not to mention that acquiring a full collection of the Supremes or the Temptations is a Gargantuan - and essentially useless - work).

Every now and then, though, some poor soul would break out through the Motown financial and conservative web and try to branch out on its own, become more artistically independent and move away from the standard. Some ended up trapping themselves even tighter, like Diana Ross or Michael 'Bad Thriller' Jackson; some succeeded but didn't live long enough to enjoy it, like Marvin Gaye; but you had to be a truly great genius in order to be able to stay within Motown and still survive as an independent, creative, talented, and inspired artist for decades. That's what happened to Stevie "Blind Nigger" Wonder. Now don't you worry, just teasing all the PC types out there. And while we're at it, may I just add that while nobody ever mentions the fact that Stevie is blind, it is, in fact, well worth mentioning: the opposition between Stevie's lack of eyesight and the incredibly colourful, rainbow-tinged pattern of his musings is truly amazing.

It's not that Stevie really transgressed Motown or the whole phenomenon of "black music". Based on his innovations (which included complex arrangements, a creative use of synthesizers while these were still in their childhood, and certain other elements), some believe him to be a huge, unstoppable revolutionary; but I tend to take him as simply the very, very best in the genre - a person intentionally limiting himself to more or less simple pop, funk, and R'n'B structures, but demonstrating signs of unmatched greatness within the formula. And above all, signs of absolute creative freedom and sincerity. Stevie is, unquestionably, the undisputed prime contender for the title of 'Happiest Man In Pop', and he earns this title by really being happy, not just faking it. His songs may be angry and socially biting, lamentative and melancholic, but never depressing or really dark, and all this without a faintest trace of cheesiness: you can actually feel his real presence in all of his songs, and it's a presence of a perfect, self-contained human being who's able to find light even in the darkest corners and absolute, unlimited delight even in the most negligible things. Sort of Bob Dylan in reverse - where Bob was "negative" in ninety percent of the cases, Stevie always takes everything with a smile, and infects millions of people with it. God bless him for that.

It's not that joy is the only feeling that Stevie can communicate in his music, of course. His social critique hits heavily, when he doesn't overdo the trick; he is a beautiful supplier of "graceful introspection"; and later on, he even engaged in a deeper, Santana-esque type of spirituality that may or may not be to everybody's liking, but at least it is an interesting alternative to all the usual stuff. And, of course, as a conclusion one must add all the necessary trimmings - Stevie's beautiful singing voice; Stevie's multi-instrumentalism; Stevie's gift for creating memorable melodies; Stevie's huge commercial success; Stevie's vast social achievements, etc., etc., the list might go on forever.

All that said, Stevie is hugely underplayed; for many people, he's more of a reverend icon than of a real musician. Thus, in the States, his major string of major Seventies' albums seem to be somewhat ignored by classic rock radio stations, and in Russia it's damn hard to even find the albums in question. Get the drift? I deeply hope this wretched collection of mine will grow on and improve vastly in the next few months, but I don't have any solid arguments to base that hope upon. So far, I have gone through a lot of pain to finally acquire most of Stevie's important albums - and his rating gradually increased from an overall C to an overall B, with Songs In The Key Of Life as the absolute pinnacle of his career. In the meantime, however, please restrain from flaming me for not having reviewed or even heard his entire catalog and for Chrissake don't send me the "you should definitely buy album so-and-so" type comments or I will kill somebody.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 12

A little bit unfocused, and perhaps a little bit too strong on the 'groove' side rather than the 'hook' side, but it's classic Stevie anyway.


Track listing: 1) Love Having You Around; 2) Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You); 3) I Love Every Little Thing About You; 4) Sweet Little Girl; 5) Happier Than The Morning Sun; 6) Girl Blue; 7) Seems So Long; 8) Keep On Running; 9) Evil.

This is where Stevie has just stepped from the escalator on which he spent the previous ten years - not quite as immaculate as the subsequent string of records, but just about almost there. The title is telling - this is, indeed, music of HIS mind, not anybody else's; Stevie's not going to have other people make decisions for him, not any more. And this is where the quintessential Stevie Wonder sound is established, too. The harmonies, the harmonica, and above all, the synthesizers, used in a humane and innovative pattern - you bet your life no Motown artist sounded like this before, what with the big bands and Spectoresque production and thick horns sections and orchestration and all. This is Stevie's personal music firmly establishing itself.

If it's not perfect, that's merely because Stevie is still a little bit trapped by classic R'n'B conventions; some of the songs are pure grooves with weakly established hooks. When I look at the track listings for Talking Book or Innervisions now, I'm perfectly able to visualize the essence and the main melody line of every single song; I'm not quite able to do it for this record. And it doesn't help that the songs are sometimes too drawn out; of course, Stevie would never consider the length of his songs a problem, but he got more careful about justifying that length in the future anyway. Even so, just about everything on here grows and grows and grows upon you with every subsequent listen.

It's also - funnily enough - a more well-balanced record than the subsequent two. Stevie's double emploi as sweet sentimental balladeer and rough energetic funk rocker gets a great representation on the album from the very start. We kick off with a terrific rocker, 'Love Having You Around', all menacing gritty synths, strong organ backing, and funny electronically encoded backing vocals and even what seems like "talk box" effects - never knew that stuff was actually being put to use as early as 1972. Is the song too long at seven and a half minutes? Maybe, but I'm willing to forgive it the length, because Stevie makes sure he populates the song with every single sound combination possible to get out of his instrumental/vocal inventory. And excuse me, but it certainly takes a genius to make a song where he plays all the instruments himself sound like a monstruous collective funky jam. If anything, this track alone is enough to earn Stevie the "black Mozart" tag - but relax, it only opens an almost never-ending string of masterpieces.

And the second one comes right after the first, the equally long ballad 'Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)'. Now frankly, I'm not all that sold on the first part of the song, the one based around the chiming sound - it's nice Stevie Wonder, for sure, but the same style would be done in an even more convincing form on, say, 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life'. But when at about three-thirty into the song, he launches into the second - complaintive - part of the song, that's when you're really introduced into the man's paradise. I have no idea what prompted him to get that ethereal, totally enthralling sound out of his keyboards; the main synth-carried melody, that "whizzing" one baised on a steady raising of the pitch, symbolizes the very essence of emotional catharsis, if anything else. I frankly do not know anybody - with the possible exception of Brian Eno - who can make a synthesizer sound so amazingly beautiful. If you ever spent sleepless nights lamenting over the fate of Eighties music, condemning the robotic synth and everything that goes along with it, make sure you listen to this song in the morning.

That's just two songs, though, there's much more. The bouncy-poppy side of Stevie is wonderfully represented with the catchy number 'Sweet Little Girl', where the man puts the emphasis on electric piano and counterpoints his passionate vocal delivery with expressive - and minimalistic - harmonica fills. I even kinda like the parts where the time signature changes and Stevie goes into his heavily accented spoken bits of funny lovestruck babble ('uh... kincha her' me tokn to yuh boibee?'). The "short expressive concise ballad" side is represented by 'Happier Than The Morning Sun', which could have been simply Stevie and an acoustic guitar for all I care, it'd still be beautiful. The "depressing ballad" side is here, too - it's 'Girl Blue', where Stevie puts a little bit of electronic distortion on his vocals which fits the overall mood just fine, so he can sound just a little bit more "detached" and cold than he really is.

You hungry for more funk? Here, grab that 'Keep On Running' thing! The clavinet sound that would later blossom into the unsurpassed riffs of 'Superstition' is here, and great piano fills, and an incredible amount of energy. 'Keep on running, running from my love!'. Now here's a groove that runs for just the right amount of time, and runs perfectly for all of its duration. The piano, bass, clavinet, and drums all seem to be bursting with passion, as if Stevie were playing them all at the same time instead of doing what he actually did - painstakingly and meticulously overdubbing 'em one after another. (It actually takes quite a bit of imagination to visualize that process, now doesn't it?). And if you want a little bit of social comment, you got the anthemic, yet unpretentious ballad 'Evil' to close off the record, which may not boast a carefully crafted structure, but hits all the right emotional chords anyway.

I don't really know why I rate this lower than Talking Book, to tell you the truth. Ah, shucks, whatever. I'm not too crazy about 'Seems So Long', I guess, but in general it's all just minor quibbling, and maybe I'm just too scared to have an endless run of nines and tens. I'll redeem myself by saying that this is an absolutely indispensable record in your Stevie Wonder collection - there's no excuse for owning Songs In The Key Of Life and not owning this one.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 13

Simple, but utterly disarming funk 'n' balladeering - these songs eat into you like LEECHES.


Track listing: 1) You Are The Sunshine Of My Life; 2) Maybe Your Baby; 3) You And I; 4) Tuesday Heartbreak; 5) You've Got It Bad Girl; 6) Superstition; 7) Big Brother; 8) Blame It On The Sun; 9) Lookin' For Another Pure Love; 10) I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).

Talking Book didn't exactly propel Stevie into stardom - I mean, it didn't make him more of a star than he already was - but it usually initiates the critics' lengthy string of impeccable or near-impeccable SW albums. It is supposedly the most "simple-sounding" of these, but, strange enough, is also a little more difficult to get into. On first listen, the endless grooves do not seem to amount to anything much: what's the deal, for instance, with the never ending coda to 'Maybe Your Baby', or the endless repetition of the title in the chorus of 'I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)'? But then, of course, comes the realization that Stevie is still working within the usual funky/soulful pattern, where repetition is the key to a groove's secret, and keeping this in mind makes the task of getting into the album quite a simple one.

Anyway, I can hardly find any flaws within the individual tracks, much as everyone else before me. Stevie is not getting way too complex in his arrangements: the songs mostly sound as if all of them were recorded in his bedroom, but it also makes the listening process more intimate. The synths are used quite prominently, but if anybody wanted a proof of Stevie's "pioneering experience" in this direction, it's right here and now: he uses the synths as independent, expressive instruments, supplying all kinds of moods from the 'menacing' on 'Maybe Your Baby' to the 'soothing' on 'You've Got It Bad Girl'. Meanwhile, the guitars, mostly played by Stevie himself, rock when necessary, and all the other instrumentation is always firmly in its place.

A usual complaint is that there is an overabundance of love thematics on the album, which is the only serious obstacle for many to put it onto the very upper shelf of Stevie's catalog. It is indeed a minor, if ultimately forgettable, problem, mainly because the accent is thus heavily placed on ballads - a couple more decent rockers would have corrected the balance. Of course, no rocker, decent as it were, could have beaten out 'Superstition', the ultimate funk song of all time. A person who doesn't get his knees jerking and his head throbbing at the very first sounds of that crazy, neurotic guitar-imitating synth punching out the rhythm should consult a neurologist as soon as possible, although, of course, it's not just the guitar that matters - it's the combination of everything: "guitar", crunchy brass section churning out brass riffs as the main part of the melody, Stevie roaring out "SUPERSTITION ain't the way!", and the very lyrics that deal with a subject not often touched upon in rock music. And above all, a certain whiff of negligence and subtlety: come on, the song isn't really putting it all in your face, it's modest and quiet, and yet in a certain way it rocks harder than AC/DC. Amazing.

The only other true "rocker" on the record is the already mentioned 'Maybe Your Baby' - a song which I slowly grew addicted to, as that repetitive, yet imaginative chorus constitutes a wonderful groove that reveals something new each time you listen to it. It's only slightly worse than 'Superstition', since it doesn't have that song's irresistible bounce; but the "bassy" synths and Stevie's improvised vocal passages 'woven' around the backing girls' chanting of the refrain add a unique flavour to it as well. Deeply intriguing - the only other similar experience I can recall is the Stones' eleven-minute version of 'Goin' Home'.

Everything else is far softer and more relaxed, but equally good. The pure love ballads are capped off by the classic 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life' (I don't seem to get why the song is revered so much higher than many of Stevie's other ballads, but it's unquestionably a masterpiece anyway), and both 'You And I' (the weakest cut on the album, arguably) and 'Lookin' For Another Pure Love' are still all drenched in that inimitable Stevie-patented warmth and optimism, with a touch of 'meditative gentleness' on 'Lookin' For...' (by the way, the song also features an excellent, subtle, but moving guitar solo from Jeff Beck, who was somewhat associated with Stevie at that time; rumour has it that Stevie wanted to give him 'Superstition', but then changed his mind at the last moment or maybe Jeff changed his mind, I don't remember which). But my personal favourite among the ballads on here is 'Blame It On The Sun', with wonderful lyrics by Syreeta Wright. I suppose what makes the number so great is its unexpected deepness - here is a chance to prove that love thematics can be taken just as seriously as any other topic. And Stevie does Syreeta, and all of us, a favour: the build-up in the song is dang near perfect, going from the slightly noodling main melody where he complains that 'my love has gone astray' to the mighty climax of Stevie blaming it all on the sun and and the wind and the trees, but 'my heart blames it on me'. Kinda makes you think, doesn't it?

The biggest surprise to me, though, is the album's "grand finale" - 'I Believe' is one of those rare cases when a song of deep personal confession and a powerful epic that anybody can get engaged in coincide in one track. Kinda like the Who's 'See Me Feel Me', you get that drift; this is, in fact, the only type of universalist anthem I am able to appreciate (as opposed to, say, all those cheap Queen anthems). And it closes on a note of brilliance - when the endlessly droning, yet fascinating 'I believe...' refrain suddenly dies away and is replaced by a short driving funky piece that ends the song and album; a short reminding of Stevie's "rocking" nature.

In all, the album is just a wee bit short of perfection; everything is top quality, apart from one or two slightly weaker numbers, and only the fact that this is a very "lightweight" record prevents me from pumping the rating up higher; "lightweight" in the sense that Stevie would go on to far greater things.



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 13

This album is great, but it just about misses an important part of Stevie's essence... read on.


Track listing: 1) Too High; 2) Visions; 3) Living For The City; 4) Golden Lady; 5) Higher Ground; 6) Jesus Children Of America; 7) All In Love Is Fair; 8) Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing; 9) He's Misstra Know-It-All.

I hate to say it, but Innervisions is an overrated album. The hype is actually harmful in this case: I had such tremendous expectations, for a masterpiece to end all masterpieces, that I couldn't help but be deeply underwhelmed on my first listen. I wanted a great, spiritually upraising, cathartic experience that would eventually leave me on my knees; what I got was a somewhat uneven collection of upbeat, catchy political and social statements. In other words, the more I listened to this album, the more I liked Songs In The Key Of Life, and it was that double-album grandiose Stevie encyclopaedia that earned him a rating of four in the final end. And Innervisions? Great record, but putting it up as Stevie's best achievement is, well, comparable to putting up Rubber Soul as the Beatles' finest hour: it is possible, but so irritatingly debatable that better not.

Let's contemplate. Innervisions, in a certain sense, is a record that tries to make up for the flaws of its predecessor (Talking Book): where the latter was a bit too heavy on the balladeering side, with just 'Superstition' and maybe a couple other slower-moving tracks representing the 'energetic' side of Stevie, this record pushes the balance in the opposite direction. There's lots of cool funky grooves on here, one song after another based on grumbly, jerky synth patterns and pulsating bass lines; even so, not even a single melody on here matches the sharp punch of 'Superstition', but at least, everything is fairly solid and enjoyable. The ballads, on the other hand, are pushed in the corner: just three out of nine songs, all of them lurking somewhere in deeply hidden spots and not attracting attention until it's too late. AND? And to me, that's a definite minus; I love Stevie the rocker/funker as much as anybody, but there's no doubt that it is his deeply spiritual, tear-jerking ballads that elevate him to the superman position - take away the ballads and you just get an excellent 'funk-rock' performer, along the lines of, I dunno, Funkadelic or Sly & The Family Stone. To make it short, not a single track on Innervisions (except for maybe 'All In Love Is Fair' on a good day and 'Visions' on a bad day) brings a tear to my eye, while, for comparison, almost every third track on Songs In The Key Of Life does just exactly that. So how am I supposed to rate this as Stevie's highest achievement?

Actually, what I think is that perhaps Stevie should have waited until 1973 and released the tracks off Talking Book and Innervisions interspersed with each other as a double album. The two records perfectly complement each other. Who knows, maybe Stevie himself realized that and followed that exact principle with Songs In The Key Of Life? What an incredible guy.

Enough bitching, anyway. Don't let that rambling excourse lead you into believing that this isn't a great album - there ain't a weak song anywhere in the track listing. Even the ballads, while few and somewhat unnoticeable at first, are actually first-rate. The acoustic introspection of 'Visions' is moving and, well, nice to the touch, I'd say, with Stevie dreaming of 'people hand in hand/Have I lived to see the milk and honey land?'. The somewhat more upbeat and lushly arranged 'Golden Lady' is one of those rare brands of tracks that function perfectly as both radio fodder and impeccably written artistic masterpieces, with an unforgettable romantic chorus ('golden lady, golden lady, I'd like to go there...'). The only grandiose sweeping number, though, with Stevie giving it his all on the vocals, is 'All In Love Is Fair' - I guess an enemy of mankind would call the song 'pretentious' and 'fake operatic', but that would be an enemy of mankind for sure. For the record, this just might be Stevie's best vocal delivery of all time.

That said, the ballads are still hardly superior to the godly hooks of Talking Book, so let's concentrate on the funk-rockers instead. The centerpiece of the album seems to be the big hit 'Living For The City', and it sure deserves its seven minute running time: Stevie's tale of a black man's urban dream being shattered to pieces (including a dramatic 'interlude' picturing the young man's unhappy adventures in the Big Apple) is poignant and driving, with hard-hitting lyrics and a particularly pissed-off, sneering vocal delivery... when the man arrives at singing 'living just enough, just enough for the cityyyy-yeaaah', you kinda get the feeling that this is the man and that he's really prepared to stand up for the Black Man. Well... keep it up, Stevie.

Elsewhere, he turns to problems of drug addiction, on the cool, danceable 'Too High', whose 'broken' synth line is catchy enough to compensate for the somewhat disturbing 'doo doo doo' interludes, and on 'Jesus Children Of America', which suffers from way too preachy lyrics that pay too much attention to transcendental meditation, but is otherwise identifiable as yet another in a series of the greatest funk rockers of all time. 'Higher Ground' was also a hit, and rightly so - I consider it the second best song on the album, with its ominous 'bubbly' synth rhythms an exact equivalent to the 'pricky' guitar rhythms of 'Superstition'. Insanely catchy vocal melody, too - insanely catchy. Finally, 'Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing' is just a lightweight piece of Latino-tinged fun, and 'He's Misstra Know-It-All' ends the album on a rather strange note, with an optimistic soothing piano-based melody and an acute piece of social critique in the lyrics. Incoherence? Paradox? Come on now, it is sometimes useful to have a great album end on a seemingly illogical note - as if the artist were saying, ' be continued!'.

All in all, Innervisions is certainly a key album in Stevie's catalog, presenting him as a powerful and masterful 'rocker' where Talking Book presented him as an intricate and introspective 'balladeer'. But I can hardly imagine one record without the other - and I would certainly not be recommending any of them for Stevie beginners, as the perfect synthesis of the two styles was achieved only three years later, in one of the greatest albums of all time.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 13

A little too heavy on the mellow side, but what else would you expect from a guy who's just survived death?

Best song: CREEPIN'

Track listing: 1) Smile Please; 2) Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away; 3) Too Shy To Say; 4) Boogie On Reggae Woman; 5) Creepin'; 6) You Haven't Done Nothin'; 7) It Ain't No Use; 8) They Won't Go When I Go; 9) Bird Of Beauty; 10) Please Don't Go.

Getting into this album is almost as hard as having to type in its title, but it pays off. Stevie had a near-fatal car accident in late 1973, and as we all know, near-fatal accidents often result in a complete artistic transformation (see Dylan for further references). Well, FFF is not a complete transformation, but it certainly is very much influenced by the event. Here, Stevie drops the 'energetic' vibe of Innervisions almost entirely and concentrates on his moodier, more introspective side - so in some respects, it's a return to the values of Talking Book, but on a more "serious" level, because there are actually very few basic love ballads on here; you have ruminations on life in general, pleads for an optimistic approach to life, God-oriented conversation, and even the love ballads themselves have more to do with lost love than newly found one.

So, in general, it's not an easy trip to get into, which is why it is often ranked below the more "obvious" masterpieces, such as the two albums before it and the one after, but all in all, it's hardly any worse. Judge these songs according to their individual value and you'll come up with merely yet another immaculate collection, no more and no less. Of course, if the Stevie Wonder you crave for is primarily the hot funky edgy Stevie Wonder of 'Superstition' and 'Living For The City', you're not advised to visit this place, except for one track - 'You Haven't Done Nothin', which almost sorely sticks out of all the mellowness as one of the angriest political comments Stevie has ever delivered, and with a classy 'Superstition'-like pseudo-guitar riff to boot, and with The Jackson 5 providing (very unspectacular, I must say, but that doesn't spoil the song much) backing vocals. As powerful as the song is, though, it's just a bit too close to 'Superstition' in my intuitive understanding, almost like a self-conscious clone of the latter, and is actually far from the best on the album.

The only other moderately energetic song is 'Boogie On Reggae Woman', as catchy as everything Stevie was doing throughout this period - the fun thing is that the song is neither boogie nor reggae, yet is slightly reminiscent of both. It's being driven by one of those goofy synth riffs that are Stevie's absolute trademark, but I guess the central point of the song is still the amazing harmonica solo, when Stevie goes 'can I play?' and then just totally delivers. I sometimes think that it's one and the same brain mechanism in the man's mind that is responsible for his singing and harmonica playing, actually, they sound so much like substitutes of each other. I guess Stevie is one of those few artists who can make that instrument sound really beautiful, in the most common understanding of the word (not in the 'oddly beautiful' way in which, say, Dylan uses same instrument, not to mention the "gritty" bluesy harmonica).

But again, I guess these two songs are not much when it comes to the introspective ballads that make the bulk of the album - think otherwise and be thoroughly and utterly disappointed. 'Smile Please' opens the album on a somewhat inconspicuous note; it's pretty quiet and unpretentious, with Stevie putting an innocent, naive line of "bum bum di di bums" as the song's climactic point. Yet it pretty much suits the album's subtle nature; it just wouldn't feel right if the record were to begin with something as anthemic as 'Love's In Need Of Love Today', you know. But already the second song, 'Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away', is typical anthemic Stevie, with a build-up to die for, going through the quiet verse, then the much louder middle-eight, and bursting into petals with the ecstatic chorus - 'but in my heart I can feel it, feel His spirit...'. Along the way, vocal hooks keep getting dispersed about like seeds off a watermelon, the most throat-clenching being the slight, teeny drop-off in loudness when Stevie goes 'it's taken Him so long cause we got so far to come...' right before ripping into the chorus.

The gentle piano ballad 'Too Shy To Say' works admirably as well, even if there's little to discuss about it (a piano ballad is a piano ballad, right?), but still the next major highlight only arrives in "Creepin'", which is actually a bit strange melodically for Stevie - it doesn't sound like a typical R'n'B ballad to my ears. For some reason, it almost sounds like a white ballad, maybe because of a stricter, more structured approach to the melody? Who knows. Not that I doubt Stevie's skills when it comes to assimilating pretty much every influence in his work, and plus, my ears might actually be deceiving me. In any case, it's a totally gorgeous song, my favourite on this album and one of the best ballads in his entire catalog; pay special attention to Minnie Riperton's beautiful backing vocals (which actually add to the song, unlike the Jackson 5 backup on 'You Haven't Done...').

The last four songs tend to blend together a bit because they aren't separated by any rockier "breathers" like 'Boogie On Reggae Woman', but it helps to listen to them one at a time. 'It Ain't No Use' is that song with the gorgeous 'bye bye, bye bye bye' hook in the chorus; 'They Won't Go When I Go' is the one that begins with a piano intro not unlike Elton John's 'Border Song' and then transforms into Stevie's meditation on the afterlife - with the magnificent ascending piano melody in the chorus; 'Bird Of Beauty' is the one that has the goofy "laughing" synth melody underpinning it, as if we were talking about a laughing-bird here; and 'Please Don't Go' is the one that... well, it's probably nothing special, but it's fun how it seems so pretty uplifting even if the lyrics are mostly dedicated to what's being said in the actual title. Heh. Imagine that.

So, in fact, this isn't a letdown. It is actually just as consistent as anything else within the "gold" period, it merely suffers from not having enough 'edgy' material - but neither did Talking Book, and almost every single song off that one is a friggin' classic. It simply takes a little time to digest, or maybe a special mood. Or maybe a car accident. Next time you drive your vehicle over a cliff, be sure to have a tape of FFF in your stereo - perfect listening material to assimilate while you're waiting for the ambulance. (A little black humour never hurt a stupid review anyway).



Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 14

A little bit of filler and a little bit of preachiness mar this, but the album is nevertheless the greatest statement of Optimism in music.

Best song: now here's one album where it all depends on the mood

Track listing: 1) Love's In Need Of Love Today; 2) Have A Talk With God; 3) Village Ghetto Land; 4) Contusion; 5) Sir Duke; 6) I Wish; 7) Knocks Me Off My Feet; 8) Pastime Paradise; 9) Summer Soft; 10) Ordinary Pain; 11) Saturn; 12) Ebony Eyes; 13) Isn't She Lovely; 14) Joy Inside My Tears; 15) Black Man; 16) Ngiculela - Es Una Historia/I Am Singing; 17) If It's Magic; 18) As; 19) Another Star; 20) All Day Sucker; 21) Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call).

Let me apologize beforehand if I overabuse the words 'wonderful', 'beautiful', 'gorgeous', 'outstanding', etc., etc., in my description of this album. The fact is, while bands like the Beatles were primarily intent on recording music that was 'great' in all possible senses, Stevie Wonder's main function was to write music that was 'beautiful' by definition, and I can't really call these songs by anything but their own proper names. Okay, on to the review now.

One day I sit and think that this monumental double album could have made a much better single one. The other day I stand up and think that there's just too much great material to reduce it to one disc, and so maybe it is better to leave everything as it is. One thing's for sure, though: this is the artistic/conceptual peak of Stevie, the album that left him so drained and exhausted that he's never done anything at least vaguely approaching Songs since. This is his 'Lifehouse' - the vast Stevie Wonder encyclopaedia that summarizes all of his beautiful (and not so beautiful) aspects; only, unlike Pete Townshend, Stevie managed to bring his gargantuan task to completion, and so what the hell am I talking about? Leave all this filler on record, it wouldn't be the same without the filler!

Where do I really start with this magnificent album that's an absolute must for everybody with at least a little interest towards black pop music? Well, first of all I must say that it's not very easy to get into it, because, as with every Stevie Wonder album, its charm is very 'uneconomic'. The biggest problem is that a very large percent of the songs are terribly prolongated - so much, in fact, that if you'd only trim the lengthy codas to 'Love's In Need Of Love Today', 'Ordinary Pain', 'Black Man', 'Another Star' and others, the album would have automatically been reduced to a single LP. This is, indeed, a problem that a lot of people find really confusing, and for a short while I hated them as well. Then, however, it struck me. These lengthy codas are necessary for the album, because one thing it isn't: a collection of short catchy pop songs. Nor, however, is it an overblown 'progressive' record: the songs are for the most part firmly grounded in common problems - love, hate, pity, home-level spirituality, nostalgia, racism, social unjustice, etc. But the fact that the songs are so long serves as a 'stabilizing' factor: it demonstrates that these songs aren't just your basic for-the-moment hits that you rush through your head and forget the next day, or, in fact, the next minute. Almost every song here is a statement of sorts, a heartfelt, sincere confession, and the fact that it's long only speaks in favour of the song's seriousness and importance. Not to mention that most of the codas are hooky: Stevie either charms you with some emotional, tear-inducing singing ('Love's In Need Of Love Today'), or a dumb, but crazy-fun danceable rhythm ('Another Star'), or something like that.

And as for the songs themselves, well, it's easier for me to list the filler than the good material, just because their numbers are incomparable. In fact, there's just about three or four songs out of twenty that don't have their 'magic' moments, at least, they don't seem 'magic' to me - they might seem so to you. In particular, I'm not that fond of the instrumental 'Contusion', a funky dance tune that doesn't really seem to belong to the album (although it's nowhere near offensive); the above-mentioned 'Black Man' whose social message is much too straightforward, not to mention the bizarre call-and-answer session between teachers (?) and pupils near the end where the 'teachers' scream at the children as if they were in a concentration camp, not a school; the soulful, but much too simplistic acoustic ballad 'If It's Magic'; and the ridiculous Latino nonsense number 'Ngiculela/Es Una Historia'.

But how could this puny list serve as a serious objection against a song as stunningly beautiful as 'Knocks Me Off My Feet', one of the most gorgeous love ballads ever written? Notice how the humble (and brilliantly twisted) verses contrast with that wonderful bombastic chorus ('but I love you I love you I love you')? That's catharsis for ya, I say! And how could this wretched list ever hope to make one forget about the unhidden passion of 'Isn't She Lovely', a song devoted to Stevie's little daughter? Possibly the best 'father-child anthem' ever written by a living man, it has such an uplifting, warm melody that it's able to move a stone, and that harmonica solo that seems to go on forever and forever... well, it's a little bit short for me. Out of the more 'bloated' numbers, I vote for 'Joy Inside My Tears', a song that's 'angelic' by definition; the chorus alone is worthy of inclusion into God's list of preferred recordings. Lovers of simple, unadulterated dance music will certainly get their kicks out of 'Another Star' with its endless 'na-na-nahs' that might seem stupid but are at least memorable. And if you're hungry about Stevie's jazz roots, what about 'Sir Duke', a charming tribute to all the jazz masters of the past?

Another equally important 'conceptual' part of the album is social critique and Stevie's role of 'master of the minds'. The best example of a politically engaged song here is certainly 'Pastime Paradise', a somewhat stripped-down piano/acoustic shuffle that makes much better use of four-syllable Latin words than Bob Dylan made of three-syllable Latin words in 'No Time To Think'. But 'Village Ghetto Land' (the number with one of the most interesting synth strings arrangement on the record) comes close in its prettiness, and then, of course, there's 'Saturn', Stevie's sci-fi tale of leaving the Earth with its problems. Don't know why he chose Saturn and not Juppiter as his last abode (he probably chose the most realistic choice - Juppiter is too far away, while Mars is associated with war itself), but that chill-giving snarl at the beginning of the chorus is really something, anyway.

Behind all this, however, we mustn't forget that Stevie's primarily a musician and a composer (most of the instrumental work on the album is done by him, although there are a little bit more guest musicians than usually). And he's an experimental composer at that, always willing to take risks. Where I'm pointing to? Well, I just wanted to remind you that at least two of the songs on the album feature outstanding, highly unusual arragements that caught my ear immediately. 'Have A Talk With God', for one, features an incredible synth pattern that beats Pink Floyd to hell: have you ever bothered to carefully listen to that song? And 'All Day Sucker' (crazily enough, my current bet for the best song on the whole record) has such a catchy, mind-invading rhythm, also based on synths plus electronic encoding of the spoken title, that I can't resist playing it one more time... wait a moment... oh, okay, I'm gonna listen to the nice, mellow instrumental 'Easy Goin' Evening' that ends the record instead. There's some cool harmonica playing there.

So what I really haven't done is describe all the tracks, but there's really no need to do that - I think I did give a more or less detailed picture of this incredible record. I don't know how many bad people it managed to transform into good people, but, to my mind, this is exactly the kind of thing this album is destined to be doing. If you think you suck go out and buy it now. If you think you don't go out and buy it anyway, because there's no limit to being good in this world.



Year Of Release: 1979
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 10

Terribly diluted to enjoy in one sitting, but there's quite a few gems to be found in among this stuff.


Track listing: 1) Earth's Creation; 2) The First Garden; 3) Voyage To India; 4) Same Old Story; 5) Venus' Flytrap And The Bug; 6) Ai No Sono; 7) Seasons; 8) Power Flower; 9) Send One Your Love (music); 10) Race Babbling; 11) Send One Your Love; 12) Outside My Window; 13) Black Orchid; 14) Ecclesiastes; 15) Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye; 16) Come Back As A Flower; 17) A Seed's A Star/Tree Medley; 18) The Secret Life Of Plants; 19) Tree; 20) Finale.

A weird one. Stevie's first contribution after Songs In The Key Of Life, in fact, the first one in three years, turned out to be a bizarre soundtrack to a phantasmagoric movie which nobody has ever seen. I don't really know whether this double album was indeed thought of as a soundtrack from the very beginning, but it might as well be: at least half, if not more, of the tracks are instrumentals, and practically none of the songs here are hit-oriented. Commercially and critically this was the start of the demise: while the record still made it to # 4, it probably cost him a fair amount of followers. And as for the musical press, it was certainly baffled by the fact that their beloved Stevie, the optimistic minstrel of life's simple pleasures, suddenly turned to much more philosophical subjects and even more complicated music than whatever he did before. Artistically, though, it is still a big question. Is Journey a forgotten gem, a profound conceptual album that really takes a well-trained ear to appreciate? Or is it a big put-on - a bite that was too easy to chew but too hard to swallow, a misguided attempt at reviving the worst excesses of progressive rock at a totally unappropriate time? In any case, I doubt that any straightforward answer would be quite correct in this case.

The biggest laugh, of course, was when I took that damned CD and it said 'MOTOWN' in big letters, a word impossible not to notice. Because this stuff has about as much to do with real Motown and its aesthetics as, say, Black Sabbath. When you put it on and the first ominous notes of 'Earth's Creation' hit you, you're bound to realize that you're in for something serious - Stevie certainly knew how to write a convincing, bombastic piece of music, and, to my mind, the first three instrumentals here (the other two are 'The First Garden' and 'Voyage To India') are much better than nearly everything that comes later, with some spacey, aethereal instrumental passages and a genuine sitar piece that sounds quite good to me. Not exactly 'progressive' rock - this has more of a psychedelic, Pink Floyd-ish feel to it - but still, quite noteworthy even for snub-nosed prog fans.

The problems start later, though, when we discover the terrible truth: for this album, Stevie really went for little more than atmosphere. The most astounding moment is when you realise that the instrumentals are actually more engaging than the songs themselves. Thus, the best thing on Disc 1 is the beautiful, deeply sentimental instrumental version of 'Send One Your Love': its weeping keyboards are indeed gorgeous, bringing tears to my eyes, as Stevie lashes into his usual tear-jerking schtick (i.e. heavenly synth backgrounds and simple, effective piano fills). But when you put on the next CD, you discover that the vocalized version of this song goes absolutely nowhere - a bland, muffled ditty with not even a vague reminiscence of a hook. Some songs are indeed good, I'll be the first to admit. there's the charming, ultra-tender 'Power Flower', with Stevie adopting a unique, sacchariney but absolutely endearing tone. There's the closest thing to a hit, which is 'Outside My Window', and it's indeed sing-along-ey. And 'Black Orchid' is passable, too - at least, I remember I enjoyed it every time I heard it. (Problem is, it just won't stick to my memory - gotta be that hook problem again, right?)

That's about it, though. On the down side, there's the annoying title track that sounds just like about, you know, your average type of black soul ditty (hey, maybe I was kinda wrong when I was saying there's no Motown aesthetics here?) A couple of songs are much too African for me, and it's not because they're sporting African titles ('Ai No Sono', 'Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye'), but just because their rhythms and moods are not what I like best from Stevie. And, unfortunately, there's even a few major letdowns, like the horrendous, nine-minute long disco offender 'Race Babbling' (gee, are we talking Donna Summer?), and the pretentious, murky 'A Seed's A Star', presumably performed live but not embellished by the fact. Now I know that disco grew out of funk and that nobody can funk it up better than good old Stevie, but still, disco is such a cheap form of funk that I consider myself offended.

Still, this is a Stevie Wonder album, and not a bad one. I mean, at least half of it is quite good - the instrumentals depicted above, songs like 'Outside My Window' or 'Same Old Story', they're all right by me. And how could I forget 'Ecclesiastes', one of Stevie's most spiritual and enthralling compositions? I take it. You should, too. Of course, this is definitely not the place to start with Stevie; moreover, be sure to buy it only if you're a huge fan of all of his previous output, and even this won't guarantee your love for this ambient 'crap'. Deep down inside, though, I can feel how this recording could be brilliant. And if someday you decide to trim this album down and make out a single LP instead, drop me a line! I'd be happy to hear from ya what your perfect Journey should look like!

And actually, if you axe me, I'm glad he put this one out. I mean, however good his three or four previous records might be, he couldn't go on like that forever, now could he? Experimentation and originality should be given their due when they succeed, and while Journey succeeds moderately, it still succeeds.



Year Of Release: 1985
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 11

Maybe this is unsubstantial Eighties pop, but it's all drenched in Stevie's incredible sense of melody nevertheless.

Best song: OVERJOYED

Track listing: 1) Part Time Lover; 2) I Love You Too Much; 3) Whereabouts; 4) Stranger On The Shore Of Love; 5) Never In Your Sun; 6) Spiritual Walkers; 7) Land Of La La; 8) Go Home; 9) Overjoyed; 10) It's Wrong (Apartheid).

Yes, Stevie's songwriting potential has certainly somewhat decreased over the years, but true fans of his work will get quite a strong blast out of this record in any case. It's just that In Square Circle isn't such an obvious, instantly-hard-hitting success as, say, Innervisions or just about any of Stevie's Seventies' masterpieces; it takes some time to appreciate it. At first listen, the only impression I got is that it's just a stupid letdown, with uninventive, dance melodies and synthesizers all over the place. Only this time, the synthesizer work is nowhere near as outstanding as before - such delicious moments as 'Have A Talk With God', that made his previous work so exciting, are completely gone. The synths here were played by Stevie, sure enough, but they might just as well have been played by about any popster at the time. And, while perhaps the usual statement here (the one that goes like 'on the previous albums Stevie dominated the synths, here the synths dominate Stevie') is a bit of an exaggeration, it summarizes the general impression quite well.

Worse is the fact that, by all accounts, Circle is nothing more than your average decent pop album. While the music here is mostly good (and I'll return to that a bit later), it has just only maybe about, like, a one-twentieth share of the cultural, social and aesthetic impact made by Songs In The Key Of Life. It just seems that Stevie has said about everything he ever wanted to say - and finds himself before the problem of trying to come up with some new idea. It's most evident in the lyrics, of course: about half, maybe more, of the songs deal with nothing more than simple love themes. And where he makes an attempt of recapturing the old 'social' vibe, he does it in a rather banal, rough way: one might say that the lyrics to 'It's Wrong (Apartheid)' are not much more embarrassing than the lyrics to 'Black Man', but the whole concept is kinda rougher, and, after all, 'Black Man' was just an occasional misstep; here, it seems that banality is becoming the norm. Not to mention the very title of this song, which looks like an abbreviated form of the following dialogue: 'It's wrong!' - 'What's wrong?' - 'Why, apartheid, of course!' (Var.: 'It's wrong! Apartheid!') Eh... not that invigorating.

So why do I still like this record? Actually, it's because I gave it more than one listen, though I was really hard pressed at first. And you know what? While so many contemporaries of Stevie were already lame dogs by 1985, it suddenly turns out that Stevie's musical senses were still intact! If something died in him, that would probably be the spirit of experimentation and the freshness of his ideology. But catchy, memorable, original melodies? They abound! More than that, they are still heart-felt and moving, a thing that is so rarely to find in the mid-Eighties... There are some truly gorgeous ballads on here, particularly the complaintive, almost mystical 'Whereabouts' and the orchestrated, slightly sad 'Overjoyed' (yeah, I know it's titled 'Overjoyed', but it's still a little sad), whose piano melody seems to be a bit recycled from some Key Of Life tune, but I really wouldn't know about that. And what about that killer chorus to 'Stranger On The Shore Of Life'? It's quite in the good tradition.

It's the quicker, dance-style numbers that are a little bit more, er, quirky, maybe perhaps Stevie had been rarely doing fast songs before. Sometimes this new shift of style works, like on the bouncy, melodic opener 'Part-Time Lover', but sometimes it completely fails, like on the much more generic, synth-dominated 'Land Of La La'. I mean, supposedly both songs are similar, but the first one is a bit more memorable and doesn't sound so painfully, you know, so painfully Eighties-like. And when the first notes of 'Go Home', with their robotic gadgets and electronic drums, hit you, it's like you realize that you've stepped into a new, dull world where there is no escape from. Blah. I mean, even the melody is okay, but what a sudden decline in imagination when it comes to arranging the song! If only it had been written in another age... And when Stevie takes his 'black dance' vibe and goes modernizing it with computer programming ('It's Wrong'), the effect is devastating as well. Why the hell did he want to mess around all that soulless stuff when it never added anything to his perfect sound in the first place? Did he really want to be so cool? Dunno. I still give the album an 11, in spite of all its flaws, because an absolute majority of the songs are good, and when a song is good, it's possible to see through all the shitty arrangements. But, certainly, this is not the first Stevie album to buy.


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