Classic Rock Review

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Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)


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 per-cent 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 injustice, 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 Jupiter 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 arrangements 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.

April 29, 2013 - Posted by | Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life |

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