Stevie Wonder – 1976 – Songs In The Key Of Life
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One of those rare double albums (double and a half, really, since it originally came out on 2LPs and an EP), Songs In the Key of Life might just be Stevie Wonder’s true masterpiece. Rarely have I found such an uplifting set of songs which manage to avoid schmaltz and address hard political issues whilst at the same time maintaining an upbeat attitude.
It’s almost impossible not to have your spirits lifted when it comes on, and musically speaking it’s also incredibly adventurous, with Stevie not only knocking out some all-time soul classics but also dabbling in funk, jazz fusion, a little prog on the side, and drawing a little on classical music too. Simply put, Stevie draws more or less everything which interests him musically into one massive package here and gets the absolute best out of everything he dabbles in.
The end result is magnificent.
A1 Love’s in Need of Love Today 7:05
A2 Have a Talk With God 2:42
A3 Village Ghetto Land 3:25
A4 Contusion 3:45
A5 Sir Duke 3:52
B1 I Wish 4:12
B2 Knocks Me Off My Feet 3:35
B3 Pastime Paradise 3:20
B4 Summer Soft 4:16
B5 Ordinary Pain 6:22
C1 Isn’t She Lovely 6:33
C2 Joy Inside My Tears 6:29
C3 Black Man 8:29
D1 Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing 3:48
D2 If It’s Magic 3:11
D3 As 7:07
D4 Another Star 8:19
E1 Saturn 4:54
E2 Ebony Eyes 4:10
F1 All Day Sucker 5:06
F2 Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call) 3:58
Both of Stevie Wonder’s previous two albums to this were one of the few in pop history that can truly be called musical masterpieces. From beginning to end they were highly consistant and original. But this was something different. Yes it was all those things too. But also it was an enormous labor of love,taking a than unbelievable 2 1/2 years to complete. With musicians such as Michael Sembello,Nathan Watts,Greg Phillinganes,Ronnie Foster and the late trumpet man Raymond Maldonado,along with a great many inspirational figures listed proudly in the album jacket this album spawned so much quality material that it sprawled a bit over the original double album lengh,including four songs that were originally included on a 45 inside the vinyl LP jacket. And it is glorious. The concept was the cycles of life,love and observation of the world and Wonder himself really put it all out here,no matter how long it took for the album to make it’s appearance to the world. It was apparent that the lengh of time it took for this to come out was the result of how to the broad reaching subjects presented here accessible to most people. Also as previous musical ideas of Stevie’s were being polished,arranged and combined into sleeker,more demanding sound ideas the end result was solid prood this was something worth waiting for.
The album starts out with the excellent,optimistic gospel styled pop/soul of “Loves In Need Of Love Today” and as nice a tune as it is it’s STILL one of the weaker songs here if you can imagine. On other songs such as “Have A Talk With God” and the amazing (and fondly remembered) “Pastime Paradise“. On these songs,the latter of which doesn’t feature a drum track give a go at everything;hare krishna bells,atonal polyphonic synths (the Yahama CX-1 “dream machine” to be precise) and lyrical content dealing with facing ones inner conscience and living in a time as if it was in itself a whole world. They are seperate songs but are part of a similar idea taken together. “Contusion” brings the band together for an uptempo jazz-funk/rock fusion instrumental jam and,if I may say so one of the most melodic of that form. Interestingly aside from the romantic midtempo grooves of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” the two hits on this part are two of the most compelling. “I Wish” marries pensive nostalgia with this great,playful shuffling funk while “Sir Duke” captures the flavor of..perhaps how Cab Calloway or Mr.Ellington himself might’ve sounded had they been recording at this time. The wistful funk groove of “Summer Soft” and the ballad/hard funk hyrbrid of “Ordinary Pain” are presented here in medley form,the former song talking of seasonal changes as living entities and the latter Stevie talking with his mascochistic female counterpart (as sung by Shirley Brewer).
On the second half we start out with “Isn’t She Lovely“,the bouncy celebration of birth and life that…yes has a well camouflaged goof in part of the harmonica solo. But Stevie’s melodicism is so strong it totally disguises it from most people. “Joy Inside My Tears” and “If It’s Magic“,the latter featuring the late Detroit jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby both celebrate loves power to heal inner wounds married to two of his most dynamic arrangements in the form. “Black Man” is up to this point Stevie’s most musically complex funk tune ever,a history lesson in song regarding the contributions of different people of different racial backrounds to American history with a likeminded musical array of different electronic synthesizer,early drum machine and vocorder effects that,to a degree predicts the electro funk movement of a few years from this point. He uses similar style in a more mambo soul style with “I Am Singing“,where he sings the songs theme of musical as unifying force in Swahili,Spanish and English. It’s in keeping with Stevie’s concept of peoples differences being a cause for celebration. The midtempo jazz style soul of “As” is one of Stevie’s most melodically complicated numbers,a personel favorite of mine and many and “Another Star” is a full band,uptempo latin funk celebration of love in all it’s forms.
“Saturn“,originally meant to refer to Stevie’s home of Sagginaw is a dynamic midtempo ballad about the idea of an escape to ones private heaven whereas “Ebony Eyes“,a jaunty and funky piano-soul tune celebrating a sort of school yard crush deals with a more worldly interest. On “All Day Sucker” Stevie again delivers a stuttering funk,with synths that sound a lot like turntable scratching in a proto hip-hop sense dealing with the preception of one as a sexual object. The instrumental “Easy Goin’ Evening” is…well sort of a throwaway but again LOOK WHAT IT’S PART OF. It’s sort of a cool down to this musicaly workout. From this point up to today Stevie Wonder’s musical output slowed significantly-from an album a year to between five and even ten years sometimes between releases. And it’s easy enough to see why. Here Stevie committed so many different lyrical,musical,meloldic and plain sound ideas onto his pallet that this could’ve actually served as his final album ever and he’s still be a legend by the 80’s. This album and many of these songs seperately have since become modern day standards. And even though MJ’s Thriller had higher sales figures this album achieved it’s success,unlike that one not by premotion but rather by how it’s related so heavily the listener-appealing to how our differences in love,life and consciousness made us what we are as people. And honestly that’s why I believe this will become a work of art and classic the more it ages with time.