The incredibly long and ambitious Songs In the Key of Life became the tour-de-force of Stevie Wonder‘s prolific seventies.
The album consisted of two LPs plus an addition four-song EP, a total 85 minutes of music from its 21 total songs. Wonder’s songs dealt with a variety of subjects many of which were the serious issues of the day and the musical performances are considered some of the best of his career. Because of its incredible length and rich arrangements, Songs In the Key of Life took a year longer than expected to complete, which made for a stressful situation between Wonder and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, especially since Gordy had just given Wonder the largest record contract in history in 1975. It was a seven-album, $37 million deal with Wonder guaranteed full artistic control, and Gordy and the world eagerly awaited the first album of this new contract to be completed.
The album was finally released at the end of September 1976, and by early October it was already number one on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart, where it stayed for thirteen consecutive weeks into 1977 and eventually became the second best-selling album of that year. Songs In the Key of Life also became the most successful Stevie Wonder album as far as charting singles, and several of the songs were even the basis for hip-hop standards decades later. The album also became Wonder’s third in four years to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, winning previously in 1974 and 1975 for Innervisions and Fulfilligness’ First Finale respectively. Wonder also won Grammys for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male Rhythm and Blues Performer, and Producer of the Year in 1977.
Although a total of 130 people worked on the album, many of the songs on the album were performed entirely by Wonder. The album took the listener through a journey of musical styles, recollections, and observations about issues ranging from childhood, first love, faith, social issues, and the downtrodden.
When Stevie Wonder chose the title, he set an ambitious personal goal to live up to its billing. He worked with a core group of musicians laying down many of the funk-oriented tracks while independently developing several of the more innovative tracks. Although this diverse album does have amazing cohesion, the first two original sides and EP seem to be far superior to sides three and four, which are still good but far less dazzling. All that being said, side one starts with an odd sequence of songs.
“Love’s In Need of Love Today” starts with deep harmonies before breaking into an R&B ballad. Like many songs later on the album, it contains a very long outro with much vocal improvisation all the way to the end. “Have a Talk with God” is performed in total by Wonder, mostly synths with some drums and a nice lead. “Village Ghetto Land” is completely original, with orchestral parts performed on the Yamaha “dream machine” the lyrics were written by Gary Byrd, who actually recited them over the phone to Wonder minutes before he recorded the song. The fourth song, “Contusion” is actually the first to use a “band” arrangement. It is (almost) an instrumental with just some scat vocals and where Wonder really takes a backseat to the other musicians like guitarist Michael Sembello.
“Sir Duke” finishes side one and is a true classic. The song was written in tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington, who died in 1974. Ellington had a strong influence on Wonder as a musician and he wanted to write a song acknowledging musicians he felt were important. Originally done on 16 track but later on the new 24 track recorder, “Sir Duke” is one of the great songs from the era, fresh and bold with lots of harmonized brass upfront and a fantastic vocal melody by Wonder.
The A Something’s Extra 7″ EP was included with many editions the original album and the tracks are on most CD versions. It contains four fine tracks, starting with Sembello’s “Saturn”, who got the title when he misinterpreted Wonder’s singing “Saginaw” (the town of his birth). It is a pleasant ballad with a bit of edginess and marching piano. “Ebony Eyes” is a great, upbeat boogie-woogie piano song with strong bass by Nathan Watts and drums by Wonder and really cool instrumentation in the arrangement including a talkbox, a steel guitar, and a great growling sax lead. “All Day Sucker” is another synth-driven, hyper funk song, while “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” starts kind of dramatic but eases into a nice jazz rhythm with a Fender Rhodes electric piano, topped by Wonder’s double-tracked harmonica.
Side two kicks off with “I Wish”, a song that is nearly impossible not to dance to at every listen. It revolves around several very complex synth and bass lines that mesh together like a funky symphony. The song was the first and most successful hit off the album, with nostalgic lyrics. “Knocks Me Off My Feet” begins with a lounge act piano until it works into a nice romantic ballad with some very interesting and intense sections.
“Pastime Paradise” is another complex art piece, which contains a reverse gong and strings from the “dream machine” that Wonder says were influenced by the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It also contains some very complex, Latin-influenced percussion with bells and two full choral groups singing completely different parts simultaneously. Yet somehow it all comes together in a beautiful and haunting piece. “Summer Soft” is a beautiful piano tune that breaks into nice ensemble with stronger instrumentation, with the end of the song going through many key changes, becoming more and more intense on each iteration until giving way to a closing organ lead by Ronnie Foster. “Ordinary Pain” finishes the fantastic second side as another very pleasant melody with a strong, thumping rhythm which turns sharply about midway through to a new-fangled funk with vocals by Shirley Brewer.
The third LP side starts with “Isn’t She Lovely?”, which would become one of Wonder’s all time popular songs. Written in celebration ofthe the birth of his daughter, Wonder incorporated sounds from home to complement the excellent piano riff, vocal melody, and sweet harmonica lead during the long outtro. “Joy Inside My Tears” contains a slow and steady drum beat played by Wonder with really subdued vocals. “Black Man” has a strong synth presence and 1980s type deep funk (in 1976), with a section of long question and answer chanting at the end.
On the fourth side, “If It’s Magic” stands out as a unique piece containing on harp by Dorothy Ashby and vocals with a little harmonica by Wonder. “As” is an upbeat R&B ballad dominated by the chorus hook sung by background singers with Wonder improvising much of the lead vocals. “Another Star” finishes the side with an almost disco-beat above some Caribbean-influenced piano and percussion and is yet another song with a long outro of consistent riff and improvised vocals.
Songs In the Key of Life was an incredible success on all fronts and would serve as a major influence for scores artists over the coming decades. It was also the absolute apex of a very long career by Stevie Wonder.
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.