album notes

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life
November 8, 2012, 11:50 pm
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Songs in the Key of Life
Stevie Wonder
Released 1976

Love’s in Need of Love Today: 7.3
Have a Talk With God: 6.6
Village Ghetto Land: 7.7
Contusion: 6.4
Sir Duke: 9.3
I Wish: 8.9
Knocks Me Off My Feet: 7.5
Pastime Paradise: 7.8
Summer Soft: 7.6
Ordinary Pain: 7.9
Isn’t She Lovely: 9.5
Joy Inside My Tears: 7.5
Black Man: 7.0
Ngiculela/Es Una Historia/I Am Singing: 6.8
If It’s Magic: 6.3
As: 8.8
Another Star: 7.9
Saturn: 7.5
Ebony Eyes: 7.5
All Day Sucker: 7.2
Easy Goin’ Evening: 6.0
Notes Rating: 7.571
Commercial Success: 4.9
Cultural Impact: 4.8
Influence: 4.5
Album Rating: 12.304

Stevie Wonder doesn’t exist anymore. That is: There isn’t an artist living, at least that we know, who can pour his life into music, warts and all, then produce it and polish it until it’s a landmark sonic adventure capable of defining a culture. Brian Wilson tried to do it and failed until he was a broken man. Prince came close, but he wasn’t creating with soul as much as he was his pelvis. McCartney was too corporate. Bono is too charitable. But Stevie … that guy stuck to his soul.

“Songs in the Key of Life” is the ultimate. It’s twenty-one songs of joy, pain, love, hate, vision, disillusion, funk, soul, pop, jazz – just about anything that encompasses man’s singular quest to become a better man. It’s ambition dialed to the most extreme. It can be overbearing but it can be sweeter than honey, but no matter what, it’s unquestionably one man’s story and vision and passion. It’s one of music’s greatest gifts of the 20th century, and it could quite possibly be the greatest Western album ever made.

The story goes Wonder signed a lucrative deal with Motown in 1975, bagging the wunderkind at the absolute peak of his powers. “Talking Book” and “Innervisions” were smashes and critically lauded albums. Wonder had been charting regularly since the mid 1960s. A Grammy winner and a tastemaker in music, Wonder was given full artistic control with his new contract, allowing him to take time off, regroup, then enter the studio ready to do whatever he wanted. His goal: a double album that encompassed as much of life as possible. “Let’s See the Way Life Is” was the working title. It became “Songs in the Key of Life,” packed with song after song, coda after coda, played by outstanding music legends but completely led by one man who was on some sort of all-time peak. By the time “Songs in the Key of Life” hit stores, anticipation for one album was never higher. Somehow, some way, some freaking way, the album met and maybe exceeded all expectations.

Why? Because for the boy or girl or man or woman who turns on “Songs in the Key of Life” for the very first time, there’s a sense of unbridled happy shock. Twenty-one songs, but Wonder doesn’t skimp. Most songs run over four minutes, and a few get past six. Heck, it’s not even a double album, since Wonder tacked a special EP at the end of the thing. Twenty-one songs. And they run just about every style and genre and type. It’s Easter candy. It’s a full tree on Christmas morning. It’s running home for a new candy bag on Halloween night. “Songs in the Key of Life” is the one album that never seems to end.

What are the best songs? The best might be “Isn’t She Lovely,” the unabashedly overjoyed pop song about parenthood. It’s a clear radio hit, a major smash that wasn’t even released as a single but is likely the album’s most popular track. And just when you think the song is over, a coda kicks in with Wonder’s daughter Aisha taking a bath. And it works. As does “As,” whose coda is a pure release of positive philosophy. When Wonder uses that deep growl, it enhances a true groove to a social outbreak. “Sir Duke” doesn’t have a coda, as Wonder pegged it as a single, but it’s perfect in its brassy economy.

So what doesn’t quite work? There are a few small things. “If It’s Magic” might be the poorest actual song on the album, while not bad at all. It’s a little quiet, a little too calm, and the lyrics don’t quite allow it to rise above its sleepiness. And “Easy Goin’ Evening” feels antiquated, like a leftover from the “Talking Back” sessions. Other small qualms: “Black Man” feels very dated in its loud production, while the coda (while attempting to teach a lesson)  seems to go on forever. “Contusion” is a solid instrumental but breaks up the album just a little too much. Again, these are small, small, small qualms.

The qualms are 6 percent of the album. The other 94 percent is nearly outstanding in its scope. Sure there’s no murderer’s row of all-time great songs, but that’s not the point. Life is meant to have highs and lows. There’s meant to be a crawling epic of a love song like “Joy Inside My Tears” sitting near a moody pop tune like “Ordinary Pain,” and then there’s meant to be a sudden halt and eruption of funk in the coda of said song. That’s a major highlight. “Summer Song” has some of Wonder’s best vocals, and the frustration expressed in the lyrics (about fleeting love) is echoed beautifully through maddening repetition. “Pastime Paradise” cuts deep with perfect instrumentation while being a hollow thing, easily digestible. These songs aren’t all supposed to be big and bold and brash (Oasis would try that one later with “Be Here Now”). No, Wonder realized that albums are journeys, and this particular album had to be the most involved journey he could write. It worked. Somehow, some way, some freaking way, it worked.

I think my favorite song is “Saturn.” While not the best song, it’s a gloriously harsh critique of Earth just by Wonder’s sadistic vocal turns alone. “Tell me why are you people so coooooooooooooooooooldAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!”

“Songs in the Key of Life” is filled with amazing moments just like that. Little moments that absolutely shine. And you know what they say about life: It’s all about the little moments.

Stevie Wonder nailed it.