Artist: Stevie Wonder
Album: Songs in the Key of Life
Place: Teen Challenge Thrift Store (2017 N. Broadway)
Music fans were subjected to a number of indignities during the 1970s. The Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, all chart-toppers in the 1960s, were replaced by the likes of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, the Captain and Tennille (one of them alone would have been bad enough), Rick Dees, and Silver Connection. But in many ways the 1980s were worse than the 1970s. During the 1980s, we were forced to watch the steep and staggering decline of scores of erstwhile indomitable talents. Paul McCartney gave us several enervated duets including "Say, Say, Say," and "The Girl is Mine" (as well as some truly execrable solo material), the Jam's Paul Weller inexplicably dumped one the world's hottest rhythm sections for some guy from Dexy's Midnight Runners, and the Rolling Stones gave us the putrid Dirty Work.
The case of Stevie Wonder, however, stands out. The man who gave us "Higher Ground," "Living for the City," and "Superstition" in the 1970s gave us the monotonic "I Just Called to Say I Love You" in the 1980s. And really, it's been downhill ever since. Unfortunately, that maudlin, hackneyed, gossamer-slight song may be one of the only things younger people know about Stevie Wonder. That's a shame, because Stevie Wonder produced some of the best and most challenging pop music of the last third of the 20th century. I was reminded of this when I found a wonderfully clean copy of Songs in the Key of Life at the relatively new Teen Challenge Thrift Store on North Broadway.
Songs in the Key of Life is, like the Clash's Sandinista and the Beach Boys' Smile, legendary for its ambitiousness. It's a double album, and tucked inside is a bonus EP with four more songs. The album clocks in at over 85 minutes of music. Songs is a vertiginous mélange of funk, gospel, jazz, R&B, pop, rock, and even classical music; it's the modern American songbook in less than 90 minutes. You've heard some of the songs here. The gentle and simple jazz-pop fusion song "Isn't She Lovely" is probably the best known cut on the album, though the soulful "Pastime Paradise" (famously sampled by Coolio) and the jazzy "Sir Duke" got tons of airplay in the late 1970s and appear occasionally on late-night "deep cut" FM radio shows.
The facts regarding Songs in the Key of Life are well-known to music fans—it took two years to make, it was written, produced, and arranged almost entirely by Stevie Wonder himself, it was considered very expensive when it was released (almost $14), and it's very, very long. But the length and occasional bombast here do nothing to undercut the album's power.
Two things in particular stand out. First, Stevie Wonder has a gift for melody that is unmatched (except by perhaps Paul McCartney). Many of the songs sound familiar the first time you hear them, as Stevie Wonder leads you melodically exactly where you want to go, whether you know you want to go there or not. Second, Stevie Wonder is a hell of record producer. There's a lot going on in many of the songs—"Pastime Paradise," for example, features lots of strings, a gospel choir, and some chanting Hare Krishnas. Yet, though each song bears the marks of perfectionism, the overall feel is one of spontaneity and inspiration rather than tortured and obsessive craftsmanship. If there is a weakness here, it is evident in the lyrics. Stevie Wonder's music does the talking much better than his words do. In "I Wish," Wonder sings: "Looking back on when I was a little nappy headed boy/Then my only worry was for Christmas what would be my toy." Similarly uninspiring turns of phrase abound. Luckily, the music is so good the words are literally lost in the shuffle.