Songs in the Key of Life Endures, Almost 40 Years Later
Stevie Wonder at the 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival
Photo by Marco Torres
Tonight Stevie Wonder will perform a "live adaptation" of his 1976 album Songs In the Key of Life at Toyota Center. The 64-year-old pianist/composer/performer is one of the undisputed all-time greats, Motown Records' answer to Muhammad Ali (sorry, Marvin), but on the surface this still seems like a risky move. Beloved as it is, it's hard to get around the fact that the album was released coming up on 40 years ago. What could Songs In the Key of Life possibly have to offer listeners in 2015?
It's right there at the very beginning, as it turns out. The 21-song, 76-minute double LP opens with "Love's In Need of Love Today," a gentle song of healing that Wonder treats almost like a modern spiritual. "I have serious news to pass to pass on to everybody," he sings. "What I'm about to say could mean the world's disaster, could change your joy and laughter to tears and pain." Imagine Kanye opening his next album by announcing it's about to be a total bummer...yeah, right. (Although you never know.)
But remember, as Songs was being composed and recorded, America was suffering through the end stages of its withdrawal from the war in Vietnam, watching runaway inflation and skyrocketing oil prices put a chokehold on the U.S. economy, uncovering more Nixon-administration officials' nefarious deeds every day, and making one regrettable fashion decision after another. It was so bleak that Wonder calls on the Lord in the very next song, "Have a Talk With God."
And on top of everything else, many African-Americans were also dealing with the inner-city ills documented on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, among other albums of the period. Following Wonder's talk with the almighty is "Village Ghetto Land," a mock-concerto where the string arrangement is patterned after Bach but the images are hardly so grandiose: "Broken glass is everywhere/ it's a bloody scene/ Killing plagues the citizens/ Unless they own police." Sound familiar?
Cut to "Contusion," a frenetic little palate-cleanser that breaks up the sociology lecture and sets the table for the two centerpiece singles, which divide sides 1 and 2 on the first LP and both went to No. 1. Appropriately for an album meant to celebrate life in all its variety, with as many moods as there are colors in a box of crayons, Songs lacks a single that towers over the rest of the album like "Superstition" did Talking Book and "Higher Ground" did Innervisions, Still, it's only because "Sir Duke" and "I Wish" both belong on the top shelf of Wonder's finest creations, songs where his incredible gifts of composing, arranging and performing all came together at once.
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Duke Ellington had recently died after more than half a century as one of America's most revered musicians, and by paying tribute not just to the great jazz composer/bandleader but to the boundless joy Ellington's music brought Wonder and countless other followers, Wonder makes an airtight case as one of Sir Duke's principal successors. He also doles some pretty useful advice for 1976: "just because a record has a groove don't make it in the groove." "I Wish," on the other hand, marries priceless lyrics about Wonder's days as "a little nappy-headed boy" to an even better horn chart. (Fun fact: "Duke" was bumped out of the No. 1 R&B spot by none other than Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1)," the subject of the recent Robin Thicke flap.)
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The love songs on Songs In the Key of Life are almost an album all by themselves, all of them fine as April wine but each of them expressing different aromas of that most intoxicating of emotions. First among equals is probably "Isn't She Lovely," Wonder's ode to his young daughter that has rightfully become a wedding-dance standard. There's also the understated but awestruck "Knocks Me Off My Feet"; bittersweet pining of "Summer Soft"; and even the multilingual love of music in "Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing." Personally, I'll give the nod to "Ebony Eyes" for its slight touch of of New Orleans boogie.
But even the most sacred love will be tested from time to time, and the indictment Wonder began in "Village Ghetto Land" resurfaces on the album's second half with "Black Man." On this burbling, horn-laced electro-funk jam, not terribly far removed from something off Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, Wonder uses the upcoming bicentennial to spell out achievements by Americans of all races as a way of expressing his disappointment that "liberty and justice for all" remain a fantasy for many.
But even after all that, he'd still rather look ahead with hope instead of anger: "this world was made for all men," he insists. And then a few songs later, on "Saturn," he even tries to see through the eyes of an extraterrestrial to whom "just to live to us is our natural high." It all sounds so simple when Stevie sings it.
Listening to Songs In the Key of Life today, it really is easy to imagine why Wonder might have wanted to make this album; beyond being so prodigiously gifted that music was literally shooting out of his fingertips, that is. These songs seem like they might represent a safe and secure space for him to escape from the tensions and troubles around him, somewhere he could celebrate the people he loved and every so often call out the people he didn't. In that respect, this album is full of music that is meant to be lived with. Maybe that's why it's lasted so long.
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