Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)

AllMusic Review: Songs in the Key of Life was Stevie Wonder’s longest, most ambitious collection of songs, a two-LP (plus accompanying EP) set that — just as the title promised — touched on nearly every issue under the sun, and did it all with ambitious (even for him), wide-ranging arrangements and some of the best performances of Wonder’s career. The opening “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Have a Talk with God” are curiously subdued, but Stevie soon kicks into gear with “Village Ghetto Land,” a fierce exposé of ghetto neglect set to a satirical Baroque synthesizer. Hot on its heels comes the torrid fusion jam “Contusion,” a big, brassy hit tribute to the recently departed Duke Ellington in “Sir Duke,” and (another hit, this one a Grammy winner as well) the bumping poem to his childhood, “I Wish.” Though they didn’t necessarily appear in order, Songs in the Key of Life contains nearly a full album on love and relationships, along with another full album on issues social and spiritual. Fans of the love album Talking Book can marvel that he sets the bar even higher here, with brilliant material like the tenderly cathartic and gloriously redemptive “Joy Inside My Tears,” the two-part, smooth-and-rough “Ordinary Pain,” the bitterly ironic “All Day Sucker,” or another classic heartbreaker, “Summer Soft.” Those inclined toward Stevie Wonder the social-issues artist had quite a few songs to focus on as well: “Black Man” was a Bicentennial school lesson on remembering the vastly different people who helped build America; “Pastime Paradise” examined the plight of those who live in the past and have little hope for the future; “Village Ghetto Land” brought listeners to a nightmare of urban wasteland; and “Saturn” found Stevie questioning his kinship with the rest of humanity and amusingly imagining paradise as a residency on a distant planet. If all this sounds overwhelming, it is; Stevie Wonder had talent to spare during the mid-’70s, and instead of letting the reserve trickle out during the rest of the decade, he let it all go with one massive burst. (His only subsequent record of the ’70s was the similarly gargantuan but largely instrumental soundtrack Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.) — John Bush

Track Listing:

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. “Love’s in Need of Love Today” 7:05
2. “Have a Talk With God” Wonder, Calvin Hardaway 2:42
3. “Village Ghetto Land” Wonder, Gary Byrd 3:25
4. “Contusion” 3:45
5. “Sir Duke” 3:52
Total length: 20:49
Side two
No. Title Length
1. “I Wish” 4:12
2. “Knocks Me Off My Feet” 3:35
3. “Pastime Paradise” 3:20
4. “Summer Soft” 4:16
5. “Ordinary Pain” 6:22
Total length: 21:45
Side three
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. “Isn’t She Lovely” 6:33
2. “Joy Inside My Tears” 6:29
3. “Black Man” Wonder, Byrd 8:29
Total length: 21:31
Side four
No. Title Length
1. “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” (translation by Thoko Mdalose, Raymond Maldonado) 3:48
2. “If It’s Magic” 3:11
3. “As” 7:07
4. “Another Star” 8:19
Total length: 22:25

 

Schill Score: 3/10

Schill Comment: I realize this album is supposed to be considered a masterpiece, but I really don’t care for it.  Make no mistake there are some good songs on it.  Sir Duke, Pastime Paradise, Isn’t She Lovely.  But the bad to me outweighs the good.  First a lot of the songs are painfully repetitious.  Then there is the constant talking.  Totally pointless overlays of people talking about nothing that totally ruins the music.  Isn’t She Lovely is a prime example. The first 3 minutes are great.  But that last 3 minutes or so of… what?  Giving a kid a bath or something?  It’s unnecessary and quite frankly weird.

 

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Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974)

AllMusic Review: After the righteous anger and occasional despair of the socially motivated Innervisions, Stevie Wonder returned with a relationship record: Fulfillingness’ First Finale. The cover pictures his life as an enormous wheel, part of which he’s looking ahead to and part of which he’s already completed (the latter with accompanying images of Little Stevie, JFK and MLK, the Motor Town Revue bus, a child with balloons, his familiar Taurus logo, and multiple Grammy awards). The songs and arrangements are the warmest since Talking Book, and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the vagaries of love, from dreaming of it (“Creepin'”) to being bashful of it (“Too Shy to Say”) to knowing when it’s over (“It Ain’t No Use”). The two big singles are “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” with a deep electronic groove balancing organic congas and gospel piano, and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” an acidic dismissal of President Nixon and the Watergate controversy (he’d already written “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” on the same topic). As before, Fulfillingness’ First Finale is mostly the work of a single man; Stevie invited over just a bare few musicians, and most of those were background vocalists (though of the finest caliber: Minnie Riperton, Paul Anka, Deniece Williams, and the Jackson 5). Also as before, the appearances are perfectly chosen; “Too Shy to Say” can only benefit from the acoustic bass of Motown institution James Jamerson and the heavenly steel guitar of Sneaky Pete Kleinow, while the Jackson 5 provide some righteous amens to Stevie’s preaching on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” It’s also very refreshing to hear more songs devoted to the many and varied stages of romance, among them “It Ain’t No Use,” “Too Shy to Say,” “Please Don’t Go.” The only element lacking here, in comparison to the rest of his string of brilliant early-’70s records, is a clear focus; Fulfillingness’ First Finale is more a collection of excellent songs than an excellent album. — John Bush

Track Listing

Side one
  1. “Smile Please” – 3:28
  2. “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” – 5:02
  3. “Too Shy to Say” – 3:29
  4. “Boogie On Reggae Woman” – 4:56
  5. “Creepin'” – 4:22
Side two
  1. “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” – 3:23
  2. “It Ain’t No Use” – 4:01
  3. “They Won’t Go When I Go” – 5:58
  4. “Bird of Beauty” – 3:48
  5. “Please Don’t Go” – 4:07

 

Schill Score: 8.25/10

 

 

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Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)

AllMusic Review: When Stevie Wonder applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early ’70s, he produced one of his greatest, most important works, a rich panoply of songs addressing drugs, spirituality, political ethics, the unnecessary perils of urban life, and what looked to be the failure of the ’60s dream — all set within a collection of charts as funky and catchy as any he’d written before. Two of the highlights, “Living for the City” and “Too High,” make an especially deep impression thanks to Stevie’s narrative talents; on the first, an eight-minute mini-epic, he brings a hard-scrabble Mississippi black youth to the city and illustrates, via a brilliant dramatic interlude, what lies in wait for innocents. (He also uses his variety of voice impersonations to stunning effect.) “Too High” is just as stunning, a cautionary tale about drugs driven by a dizzying chorus of scat vocals and a springing bassline. “Higher Ground,” a funky follow-up to the previous album’s big hit (“Superstition”), and “Jesus Children of America” both introduced Wonder’s interest in Eastern religion. It’s a tribute to his genius that he could broach topics like reincarnation and transcendental meditation in a pop context with minimal interference to the rest of the album. Wonder also made no secret of the fact that “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” was directed at Tricky Dick, aka Richard Milhouse Nixon, then making headlines (and destroying America’s faith in the highest office) with the biggest political scandal of the century. Putting all these differing themes and topics into perspective was the front cover, a striking piece by Efram Wolff portraying Stevie Wonder as the blind visionary, an artist seeing far better than those around him what was going on in the early ’70s, and using his astonishing musical gifts to make this commentary one of the most effective and entertaining ever heard. — John Bush

Track Listing:

Side one

  1. “Too High” – 4:36
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums, Moog bass
    • Lani Groves, Tasha Thomas, & Jim Gilstrap – background vocals
  2. “Visions” – 5:23
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, Fender Rhodes electric piano
    • Malcolm Cecil – upright bass
    • Dean Parks – acoustic guitar
    • David T. Walker – electric guitar
  3. “Living for the City” – 7:22
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocals, Fender Rhodes electric piano, drums, Moog bass, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer, handclaps
  4. “Golden Lady” – 4:40
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, drums, Moog bass, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer
    • Clarence Bell – Hammond organ
    • Ralph Hammer – acoustic guitar
    • Larry “Nastyee” Latimer – congas

Side two

  1. “Higher Ground” – 3:42
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, Hohner clavinet, drums, Moog bass, tambourine, handclaps
  2. “Jesus Children of America” – 4:10
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Hohner clavinet, drums, Moog bass, handclaps, tambourine
  3. “All in Love Is Fair” – 3:41
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, drums
    • Scott Edwards – electric bass
  4. “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing” – 4:44
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, piano, drums, Moog bass
    • Yusuf Roahman – shaker
    • Sheila Wilkerson – bongos, Latin gourd
  5. “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” – 5:35
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, piano, drums, handclaps, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer, congas
    • Willie Weeks – electric bass

 

Schill Score: 9/10

 

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Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (1972)

AllMusic Review: After releasing two “head” records during 1970 and 1971, Stevie Wonder expanded his compositional palette with 1972’s Talking Book to include societal ills as well as tender love songs, and so recorded the first smash album of his career. What had been hinted at on the intriguing project Music of My Mind was here focused into a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances — altogether the most realistic vision of a musical personality ever put to wax, beginning with a disarmingly simple love song, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (but of course, it’s only the composition that’s simple). Wonder’s not always singing a tender ballad here — in fact, he flits from contentment to mistrust to promise to heartbreak within the course of the first four tracks — but he never fails to render each song in the most vivid colors. In stark contrast to his early songs, which were clever but often relied on the Motown template of romantic metaphor, with Talking Book it became clear Wonder was beginning to speak his mind and use his personal history for material (just as Marvin Gaye had with the social protest of 1971’s What’s Going On). The lyrics became less convoluted, while the emotional power gained in intensity. “You and I” and the glorious closer “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” subtly illustrate that the conception of love can be stronger than the reality, while “Tuesday Heartbreak” speaks simply but powerfully: “I wanna be with you when the nighttime comes/I wanna be with you till the daytime comes.” Ironically, the biggest hit from Talking Book wasn’t a love song at all; the funk landmark “Superstition” urges empowerment instead of hopelessness, set to a grooving beat that made it one of the biggest hits of his career. It’s followed by “Big Brother,” the first of his directly critical songs, excoriating politicians who posture to the underclass in order to gain the only thing they really need: votes. With Talking Book, Wonder also found a proper balance between making an album entirely by himself and benefiting from the talents of others. His wife Syreeta contributed two great lyrics, and Ray Parker, Jr. came by to record a guitar solo that brings together the lengthy jam “Maybe Your Baby.” Two more guitar heroes, Jeff Beck and Buzzy Feton, appeared on “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love,” Beck’s solo especially giving voice to the excruciating process of moving on from a broken relationship. Like no other Stevie Wonder LP before it, Talking Book is all of a piece, the first unified statement of his career. It’s certainly an exercise in indulgence but, imitating life, it veers breathtakingly from love to heartbreak and back with barely a pause. — John Bush

Track Listing

Side one

  1. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (Stevie Wonder) – 2:58
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, Fender Rhodes, drums
    • Jim Gilstrap – first lead vocal, background vocal
    • Lani Groves – second lead vocal, background vocal
    • Gloria Barley – background vocal
    • Scott Edwards – electric bass
    • Daniel Ben Zebulon – congas
  2. “Maybe Your Baby” (Stevie Wonder) – 6:51
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, Hohner Clavinet, drums, Moog bass
    • Ray Parker Jr. – electric guitar
  3. “You and I (We Can Conquer the World)” (Stevie Wonder) – 4:39
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, piano, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer, Moog bass
  4. “Tuesday Heartbreak” (Stevie Wonder) – 3:02
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, Fender Rhodes, Hohner Clavinet, drums, Moog bass
    • David Sanborn – alto saxophone
    • Deniece Williams – background vocal
    • Shirley Brewer – background vocal
  5. “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” (Stevie Wonder, Yvonne Wright) – 4:56
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, Fender Rhodes, drums, Moog bass, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer
    • Jim Gilstrap – background vocal
    • Lani Groves – background vocal
    • Daniel Ben Zebulon – congas

Side two

  1. “Superstition” (Stevie Wonder) – 4:26
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, Hohner Clavinet, drums, Moog bass
    • Trevor Lawrence – tenor saxophone
    • Steve Madaio – trumpet
  2. “Big Brother” (Stevie Wonder) – 3:34
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocals, Hohner Clavinet, drums/percussion, harmonica, Moog bass
  3. “Blame It on the Sun” (Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright) – 3:26
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, piano, harpsichord, drums, Moog bass, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer
    • Jim Gilstrap – background vocal
    • Lani Groves – background vocal
  4. “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” (Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright) – 4:44
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, Fender Rhodes, drums, Moog bass
    • Debra Wilson – background vocal
    • Shirley Brewer – background vocal
    • Loris Harvin (Delores Harvin) – background vocal
    • Jeff Beck – electric guitar
    • Buzz Feiten (Howard “Buzz” Feiten) – electric guitar
  5. “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” (Stevie Wonder, Yvonne Wright) – 4:51
    • Stevie Wonder – lead vocal, background vocal, piano, Hohner Clavinet, drums, Moog bass

 

Schill Score: 8.5/10

 

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