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Josh Friedberg: Music Historian's Corner writesRediscovering Our Record Collections: Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

Preachy, saccharine, bloated, inconsistent—call it what you will, but Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life has held up exceptionally well over the last 40 years. Maybe it’s because the messages are still relevant, maybe it’s because the arrangements to songs like “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” still sound fresh, maybe it’s because Stevie Wonder toured behind the album two years ago and audiences still love it. In any case, this month, Stevie Wonder’s double-LP-plus-a-7”-EP (!)-length monstrosity has been selected for Classic Album Sundays, which CHIRP is sponsoring in Chicago at Transistor (transistorchicago.com) on Sunday, September 25.

In terms of my relationship with this album, I saw it in my mother’s CD collection as a kid, and I eventually bought the later remastered version. I’ve sometimes had a mixed reaction to this album: as others have pointed out, the lyrics are convoluted and the songs go on and on, but if you just pay attention to the arrangements and the overall sound, the album is absolutely brilliant, and today it is among my ten (five?) favorite albums ever.

It’s true that it’s cheerier than Innervisions, for example, with that 1973 masterpiece sounding edgier and sometimes more politically engaged (“Living for the City,” “Jesus Children of America”). But, as Chicago-based critic Jim DeRogatis has pointed out, Wonder was coming out of a severe 1973 car crash where he was just grateful to be alive, so (what some label as) the syrupy sweet quality of “Isn’t She Lovely,” an ode to his daughter, takes on a very compelling dimension when you consider what Wonder had been through.

Wonder had started as Motown’s “12-year-old genius” in the early ‘60s, but he really took off creatively after he gained creative control in the early ‘70s after he turned 21. Talking Book, Innervisions, and other albums represent some of the most brilliantly creative work ever produced in popular music, with Wonder working at a manic pace. In 1975, he negotiated a $13 million contract with Motown, creating further anticipation for his next masterwork.

Two years after 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, however, people were wondering what was taking Stevie so long to come out with his next album. Despite some initially mixed reviews, Songs in the Key of Life, as of 2015, was ranked by statistical aggregate acclaimedmusic.net as Wonder’s most acclaimed album ever, just a few spots higher on the all-time albums list than Innervisions.

When I listen to Songs in the Key of Life today, I hear one of the most incredibly joyful albums I have ever heard in any genre of music. As DeRogatis and Greg Kot have pointed out, most of the songs are in major keys, and Wonder brought in outside musicians in a way he hadn’t for a few albums (he played most everything himself on previous masterworks), so what Quincy Jones (in a DVD about the making of the album) calls the “hot horn section” on “I Wish” sounds that way because Stevie wanted to try something new, and it paid off.

Songs became one of the first albums ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard album chart in the U.S., and it’s amazing how many tremendous album tracks stand up to the big hits, “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”: the towering love song, “As,” arguably the album’s greatest track; “Knocks Me Off My Feet”; “Pastime Paradise,” famously sampled in Coolio’s massive 1995 hit, “Gangsta’s Paradise”; “Joy Inside My Tears”; “Ebony Eyes”; and many others. “Pastime Paradise” deserves mention especially with its powerful ending, which juxtaposes Stevie with Hare Krishna singers against a gospel choir singing “We Shall Overcome” in a minor key.

Wonder brought in some outside lyricists like Gary Byrd for different songs, including “Village Ghetto Land,” and the results can be mixed: if you only pay attention to the lyrics, such tracks can fall flat, with lines like, “Would you like to go with me/ Down my dead end street?” But the greatest strength of the album is in the arrangements and the vocals, and here, Stevie has few peers. I remember on VH1 in 2001, when the network ranked the album in their top ten of the greatest albums of rock ‘n’ roll, when talking about the album, Sinead O’Connor called Wonder “a singer’s singer,” which I absolutely agree with. When he really lets loose after Herbie Hancock’s keyboard solo on “As” and on “Another Star,” “Sir Duke,” and others, it’s clear that few singers in recorded music can match the feeling and intensity in Stevie Wonder’s vocals.

As one online reviewer argues, the repetition and monotony in certain tracks is often justified by shifts within the song, such as the backing vocalists taking over in the middle of “Ordinary Pain.” And the preachiness that Robert Christgau noted in “Saturn” and other tracks may get in the way for some, but for me, the sonic inventiveness in that track and the potentially formulaic “Black Man” (recorded for the U.S.’s bicentennial) enhance the straightforward messages.

To my ears, this isn’t Wonder’s most flawless collection of songs, but it is my favorite album of his for its abundance of joy, and while I can’t imagine what it sounded like in 1976, it holds up tremendously well today. While I don’t dance much, I may just have to go and dance to “Another Star.”

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Categorized: Rediscovering Our Record Collections

Topics: stevie wonder

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