Songs in the Key of Life, 1976

Stevie Wonder’s eighteenth (count ’em) studio album finds him returning to the thicker, more complex arrangements of Innervisions and Talking Book, after Fulfillingness’ First Finale, an album that explored a more stripped back instrumentation and production. As well as having a collection of some of the best synthesizers money could buy (Stevie had been given the largest deal ever made with a recording artist up to that point, $37 million over seven years and seven LPs), which he used extensively on this double album, along with a vast array of session geezers.

The first disc kicks off with Love’s in Need of Love Today, a slow, meditative song trying to explain the true meaning of love that wouldn’t be out of place on Fulfillingness’ First Finale. One of this memorable album’s most forgettable songs, it’s an example of Stevie in preachy mode, a theme that tends to permeate this album, and is more apparent on the following track, Have a Talk With God, whose lyrics need little or no analysis (God solves everything, and on and on). I find Stevie Wonder’s music can be at its most enjoyable when he gives his unique (i.e. visually impaired, sensory) interpretation of the state of society, its leaders and their failings, mixed with a little funkiness. Tracks like He’s Misstra Know-It-All and You Haven’t Done Nothing exemplify this winning formula. With Village Ghetto Land, he eschews this, ironicaly adding a spotless synthesized string section to a bleak description of the ghetto.

”As” is without doubt the highlight of this entire LP, a simple love song that, with increasing intensity, evolves into a spine-tingling apocalyptic gospel hoedown, an embodiment of soul at its very purest, featuring the groovy keys of Herbie Hancock. Another Star, a samba-influenced tune, much like ”As” and Isn’t She Lovely, finds a certain hook that causes your hairs to stand on end, and uses it continually for 6 or 7 minutes to euphoric effect.

Many were surprised that after two years of Hit Factory hibernation, Wonder may have produced something more sprawling and, by 85 minute length double album standards, more arrogantly ambitious or noticeably conceptual. Instead, he constructed an LP simply based on the ups and downs of life, and in some songs, using (accidentally or not) society as a kind of metaphor, a perfect example of this being Pastime Paradise. Songs in the Key of Life’s incredible variety of styles seems like a way of dodging critical over-evaluation, as well as an expression of his joy about music itself. And to those who moan about the supposed ‘racism’ of Stevie Wonder’s categorization of ethnicities as ‘yellow’ and ‘red’, consider this: He’s blind.

Best Track: ”As”

Goof: Where was ‘god’ when my copy of Led Zeppelin IV snapped, Stevie!?

9 Contusions out of 10

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