Saturday, January 9, 2016

Music Knows It Is (Redemption 9)

This past summer I read an article about a woman who lived to be over 100 years old.  Her obituary quoted a story discussing the most significant change she had experienced in her lifetime.  "electricity" she stated, saying something to the effect that people today take electricity for granted, but have no idea how hard lives were before the advent of electricity.

Maybe I'll live to 100, (maybe I won't), but in those septuagenarian years before or beyond; without hyperbole, at least one of the answers I'd give to the same question would have to be stevie wonder.  The impact Stevie has had on race, history, pop music and culture, is vast and self-perpetuating.  I daresay he's taken for granted, but ours would be a very different world; musically and socially, without his impact.

Granted, Stevie did not spring forth from the earth without precedence.  Ray Charles was an obvious influence and Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, even James Brown were older brothers/contemporaries that blazed trails for Little Stevie.  All had extended chart successes and varying cultural influence.  However, outside of Diana Ross/Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin, the boundaries of the R&B niche kept most out of the mainstream pop culture and prevented them from capitalizing economically or politically on their success.  And for much of the 60's, Stevie was barely on par with those performers. He was just another artist on the Motown label, undeniably talented, but content to churn out covers and pump out some pretty inconsistent product under the watchful control of Motown.  Oh he had a hit here and there, even a pretty good string of great singles by the late sixties, early 70's, but he never really had consistent momentum, failed to put out great albums, and as much of earworms as they are, most of those early singles are pretty light-weight.

But by the early 70's, Stevie began to blaze a new trail, bucking the restraints Motown had placed upon him and taking creative control over his music, writing, producing, and performing his own work with minimal label interference (circa "Where I'm Coming From").  Stevie finally had come of age with complete freedom to follow his muse, which was rare for ANY artist at that time, regardless of color.  And success in every possible way quickly followed, eclipsing his peers in Smokey and Diana and Aretha in rapid order and by the mid 70's was arguably the most important act in all of music. No longer satisfied with making great singles, he was concentrating on the album form and bringing greater substance to his music.  

Starting with "Music of My Mind" in 1971 and continuing through "Talking Book," "Innervisions" (arguably his high water mark), and "Fulfillingness' First Finale", all released within four years, each Stevie Wonder album raised the stakes on musicianship, songwriting, politics and humanism.  A remarkable run of artistic brilliance married to mainstream success, never once compromising Stevie's personal vision.  Stevie Wonder was inescapable in the 70's; a fixture on the pop charts, an articulate political commentator both in song ("Living for the City" "He's Misstra Know it All") and in interview, and an unwavering believer in MLK Jr and for equal rights for all when momentum could easily have been lost.  His blindness was an afterthought, if not an additional asset (Eddie Murphy's later impersonation can only have helped awareness on disability fronts, all the while being spot on genially humorous).  Even in the redneck back of the woods Wisconsin, I was getting an education with each Stevie Wonder single.    It gets a little thick to make a grand statement about his impact, but i know he made a difference to how i viewed the world; culturally, politically, musically, in a very positive and accepting light.   i'd be a different person without his influence.  and i'm not alone.

"Songs in the Key of Life" released in 1976 was the seminal work in the sequence of great Stevie albums in the 70's.  A summation of all he had explored on previous albums, plus an exploration of themes and styles he had not yet touched upon, all imbued with no less anger and pointed politics, but balanced with wisdom, understanding and faith. "Life" is an album of wildly diverse styles; rock, pop, soul, gospel, prog-rock, filled with great songwriting, inventive and dynamic production, positivity and chock-ful of eternal singles.  And influential beyond measure to this day.  What exactly doesn't this album do?

"Love's in Need of Love Today" is the perfect opener for the album.  Acting both as a mission statement and table setter for the album, the song is wrapped in a gentle melody with graceful gospel touches.  Stevie dials it up a notch with "Have a Talk with God," and "Village Ghetto Land" rolling out synth laden tracks that are funky, churchy, and futuristic that call out for greater awareness in both the spiritual and physical worlds around us.  By the time we get to "Contusion," a jazzy disco track with some great runs and key changes, we've already gotten gospel, R&B, pop and funk, but Stevie is just getting started.  Is there really a greater one-two punch on any album better than "Sir Duke" and "I Wish?"  These songs, that defy categorization, fit so many hooks into 8 minutes, I can' even count; horns, driving synths, hilarious asides ("you nasty boy") joyous, exclamatory, feet moving, hand clapping, rump rolling nods, never fail to get me singing in the car songs.   And perfectly sequenced into the pure pop delight of "Knock Me off my Feet" that sounds like it could have been written by Carole King.  Trust me Stevie, you are not boring us with it one bit.  But wait, next up is "Pastime Paradise" and the synth run that launched a thousand raps a half a lifetime later, but let's not lose sight (ahem) of the fact that the original still has plenty of balls in the indignant lyrics.  "Summer Soft" and "Ordinary Pain" could easily be throwaways in the hands of some other artist, but great melodies and a scorching guest solo (rebuttal?) halfway through "Ordinary Pain" close out the first half in spectacular fashion.

Brilliant melodies abound on the second half of "Life" as well.  "Isn't She Lovely" is a standard by this point, but to follow up that blast of joy with the heartbroken "Joy Inside my Tears," followed with the racial outrage of "Black Man" is great sequencing.  Listen to the tumbling synthesizers of "Ngiculela -- Es Una Historia -- I Am Singing" on the headphones, pure aural ecstacy.  "If It's Magic" is another stunner.  Simply produced with a harp (or harp like synths), it's a beautiful melody and a timeless sentiment.  And if "Love's in Need of Love Today" was the mission statement for the album, "As" is the challenge, the declaration, the promise.  "I'll be loving you always.   "Another Star" closes out the album proper with a horn laden workout that might go on a little too long, but fun nonetheless.

And that was pretty much all the "Songs in the Key of Life" I ever knew.  The vinyl copy I kept borrowing from the library might have had the four song bonus single at some point, but it quickly disappeared by the time I finally was able to check it out.  Even when I borrowed "Life" from the southeast library when I was in college, that ep was not to be found.  so for decades and I never knew about the four extra songs.  and what a pity, because hidden away on those tracks were some wonder flavors I had not encountered before, prog rock pop in "Saturn" oh what a loss, but what a delightful find decades later. The music hall pop in "Ebony Eyes" always makes me think of Elton John (and never fails to make me smile, especially when the vocoder pops up).  The verses of "All Day Sucker" are maybe the one time in the entire album where melody fails Stevie, but I like the almost rock edge in the song and the key change at the chorus is a nice touch.  And with "Easy Going Evening" we get that classic Stevie harmonica to wind down the album. 

And each and every time i listen still, it's all just perfect.

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