Monday, 5 October 2020

Stevie Wonder - Visions (1972-1985)

Music Of My Mind (1972)


Love Having You Around/Superwoman/Where Were You When I Needed You/I Love Every Little Thing About You/Sweet Little Girl/Happier Than The Morning Sun/Girl Blue/Seems So Long/Keep On Running/Evil                       
After the previous year's Where I'm Coming From had seen Stevie Wonder starting to broaden his horizons and experiment with different sounds and types of songs, he went the whole hog here and released this entirely self-played album. Wonder took on all the instruments and this was the first of several albums on which he would do the same thing (with just the occasional bits of help). This is still not quite the finished article, though, and, despite its brave intentions, is not as good as the next four albums would be. I have always found it to be a somewhat patchy album, which maybe a tad unfair, considering the dexterity of its implementation.
                                 
Love Having You Around is a lengthy and pulsating, funky cooker of an opener, full of clavinet, bass and pounding drums. 

Superwoman is another extended track, with definite vibes of some of the material on Fulfillingness' First Finale. It has a real laid-back soulful feel to it. It is what would come to be regarded as typical Stevie Wonder. Half way through it changes pace into its Where Were You When I Needed You section. To be honest, the two halves are like two separate songs.

 

I Love Every Little Thing About You is a poppy, catchy number that you would imagine would have been a single, but wasn't. Stevie's percussion is intoxicating on this one. The track Sweet Little Girl seems to have attracted a fair amount of criticism over the years but I have always found it quite   rousing in its funky beginning, but I have to admit when it goes into the spoken bits it loses something. It does have a reassuring thump to it though. My favourite has always been the melodic Happier Than The Morning Sun with its infectious clavinet backing and gentle vocal.

Girl Blue is a shuffling, rhythmic number and Seems So Long is a delicious slice of Wonder sweet, syrupy soul sung over some equally appealing percussion. 

Keep On Running brings back the funk, big time, with probably the album's funkiest cut, with backing vocalist helping Stevie out. 

Evil is a slow tempo, low key closer to this adventurous, and, to a certain extent, ground-breaking album. Despite is grand intentions, however, there was much better to come from Stevie Wonder in the next five years.



Talking Book (1972)


You Are The Sunshine Of My Life/Maybe Your Baby/You And I/Tuesday Heartbreak/You've Got It Bad Girl/Superstition/Big Brother/Blame It On The Sun/Lookin' For Another Pure Love/I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)          

After the somewhat rambling, inconsistent Music Of My Mind, this was the first of a classic series of seventies albums that saw Stevie Wonder really getting his whatever together. For me, it is not as great an album as Innervisions, though, neither did it have so much socially aware material on it. It is a good album, however, mainly concerning love, romantic bliss and occasional heartbreak.

As he did on nearly all of his seventies albums, Wonder played lots of the instruments himself, save the brass (trumpet and saxophone). Keyboards, bass and drums were Stevie's territory. The album was notable for its use of the clavinet, an electronic keyboard that produced that trademark funky sound particularly utilised on the iconic Superstition.

There is a relaxed feel to many of the songs, led by the opener, the beautiful You Are the Sunshine Of My Life, the lovely, soulful You've Got it Bad, Girl, the laid-back smoothness of Lookin' For Another True Love and the closer, I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).

 

You And I is a delightful slow number too. There is funk, led by the clavinet on Big Brother, the shuffling, Sly Stone-ish Maybe Your Baby and, of course, Superstition where that instantly identifiable drum intro leads into the copper-bottomed funk of the melody. One of Wonder's finest songs of all time.

Tuesday Heartbreak combines both the funky clavinet sound and wah-wah guitar with the smooth soul that is all over the album. Blame It On The Sun is a lovely, soulful song with some great percussion from Stevie and some sumptuous backing vocals.

Wonder's voice is finding that soulful, slightly nasal voice that characterised his seventies material, it was a different tone to that of his sixties hits - gruffer, deeper and funkier. This, and the three albums that followed it proved to be the high points of his career. All perfectly realised pieces of work. This was the first of those four classics.




Innervisions (1973)


Too High/Visions/Living For The City/Golden Lady/Higher Ground/Jesus Children Of America/All In Love Is Fair/Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing/He's Misstra Know-It-All   

This is probably the highlight of Stevie Wonder's remarkable career. As on many of his seventies albums, the multi-instrumentalist played many of the instruments on the tracks. Various percussionists and the experienced bassists Willie Weeks were used, but it is largely Wonder's work, and a remarkable achievement it is too. Almost a totally solo album. In common with many of the Motown/other black artists of the time, black consciousness and various social issues are dealt with - drugs, racism, inequality, and a corrupt presidency as well as some sensitive love songs.
                     
Too High is a funky, bassy "message" track concerning drug abuse, while Visions is a wistful, laid-back and beautiful rumination upon the future, featuring Utopian visions in the lyrics of a better future, somewhere, if we could only make real what we imagine in our mind. Some lovely guitar at the end of it.

 

Three tracks in, we get the mighty Living For The City with its funky, insistent, rumbling opening organ riff against a throbbing bass and assisted by some swirling synth riffs and, of course, Wonder's gritty vocal telling of an innocent black man's unjust descent into urban crime and eventual incarceration. The spoken "prison guard" scene in the middle was a shocking portrayal of institutionalised racism. It is a depressing tale, with no hope at the end of it whatsoever. A vitriolic condemnation of contemporary times and, indeed of much of today's society. It hits you right between the years. As a musical spectacle it is superb. Wonder's vocal at the end is growling and desperate, a narrator who has reached rock bottom.

Just as Living For The City fades out in a chorus of "no, no - no, no" the soft, soulful Stevie is back in the house, lifting our spirits again with the lovely tones of Golden Lady, with its razor sharp percussion, melodic synths and dreamy typical laid-back Wonder vocal.




Higher Ground is a magnificent slice of genuine funk - all clavinet licks, great drum sound and a catchy down and dirty vocal and a big hit too. What an intro it has too. 

Jesus Children Of America sounds like a typical evangelistic song but it betrays a cynicism directed at the "holy roller" preacher who is simply concerned with his own showy performance as opposed to any genuine holiness. It has a mesmeric, funky backing too. Wah-wah guitar and funky backing vocals. 

All In Love Is Fair is a gentle, charming love song, of the kind Stevie does so well, almost in his sleep. Relaxing and peaceful. 

Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing starts with a bit of cod Spanish and is a funked up, Latin, hustle-ish number that raises the energy levels of the album again just in time for the barnstorming closer, the marvellous He's Misstra Know It All, apparently directed against then President, Richard Nixon. Melodic, with a totally addictive piano hook and a gruff, soulful vocal culminating in the "look out he's comin' " shriek. Great stuff. The sentiments could be equally, if not more so, applied to the present incumbent of the said office. It is probably my favourite Stevie Wonder track of all.

Definitely his finest album, even against the double album claims of Songs In The Key Of Life.




Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)


Smile Please/Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away/Too Shy To Say/Boogie On Reggae Woman/Creepin'/You Haven't Done Nothin'/It Ain't No Use/TheyWon't Go When I Go/Bird Of Beauty/Please Don't Go    

Another of Stevie Wonder's excellent seventies albums, this was slightly more laid-back and a little darker in places than the smooth, romantic feel of parts of Talking Book and some of the social comment of Innervisions. It is certain not a morose album, though, not in any way, just a relaxing one. Coming between the two titans of Innervisions and Songs In The Key Of Life the album has often been overlooked, which is a shame, as it has hidden depths. An appealing facet of this album is the way the tracks gently flow into each other at times.
                                 
Smile Please is a lovely, melodic soul opener and Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away is one of those clavinet-dominated, semi-funky tracks Wonder was doing so well at the time. As on all these seventies albums, he played keyboards, bass, drums and the clavinet electronic keyboard. As on Talking Book, he had developed a funky, throatier voice than the one from his sixties hits, one which perfectly suited the songs. 

Too Shy To Say is a lovely, bassy, deep and slow ballad. Motown bass legend James Jamerson does the business on this one.

 

A highlight for me has always been the delicious clavinet-driven, upbeat funk of the hit single Boogie On Reggae Woman, one of Wonder's finest songs. Pure funky brilliance. That trademark harmonica makes an appearance too. 

Creepin' is a truly lovely piece of slow and easy soul with some infectious, tuneful backing vocals. After such a peaceful song, he showed he still had an appetite for a bit of social comment on the biting, funky You Haven't Done Nothin', a lambasting of Richard Nixon's US presidency at the time. The Jackson 5 feature on backing vocals, name-checked by Wonder before they sing.

The comparatively indistinct It Ain't No Use leads into the bleak piano and vocal of They Won't Go When I Go. The rhythmic, samba-influenced Bird Of Beauty comes complete with some Portuguese lyrics. 

Please Don't Go is a jazzy, soulful closer to this comparatively underrated album. Every time I listen to it, it always brings enjoyment.



Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)


Love's In Need Of Love Today/Have A Talk With God/Village Ghetto Land/Contusion/Sir Duke/I Wish/Knocks Me Off My Feet/Pastime Paradise/Summer Soft/Ordinary Pain/Isn't She Lovely/Joy Inside My Tears/Black Man/Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing/If It's Magic/As/Another Star/Saturn/Ebony Eyes/All Day Sucker/Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)

Much-beloved of all the girls I was at sixth-form college with, 1976’s double album from Stevie Wonder, was, despite accusations of bloatedness (that, to be honest, haunt every double album) his crowning achievement. All the sounds and melodies of the previous ten years-plus came together here on a veritable feast of funky Stevie soul. 

Firstly, I have to say that the sound on this remaster is SUPERB - clear, sharp and bassy at the same time. Beautiful. Just what this great album deserves.
 

The album is packed with classics, of course - the quintessential funky glory of the now pretty much iconic I Wish; the sheer brassy musical heroes tribute fun of Sir Duke; the later to be sampled (by Coolio) Pastime Paradise and the monumental, lengthy As, with its wonderfully funky second half.

There are also other wonderful tracks too - the beautifully funky instrumental Contusion; the Talking Book Stevie of Love's In Need Of Love Today and the smooth soul of If It's Magic and Summer Soft

Other highlights are the cookin' funky second half of Ordinary Pain, then Joy Inside My Tears and the forthright cultural awareness of Black Man and 
Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing They are all excellent. All of them. Even the harmonica solo that ends the otherwise schmaltzy Isn't She Lovely is superb. Knocks Me Off My Feet is chunky, vibrant and robust too. 

Another Star is eight minutes of totally infectious Latin-esque rhthmic Stevie groove, featuring a singalong "la-la-la" chorus and some sharp brass breaks.

There are also beguiling, soulful moments in the devotional and devout advice of Have A Talk With God and the hard-hitting stark bleakness of Village Ghetto Land, a track that is full of a dismal atmosphere of hopelessness that continues the social comment tradition begun in the late sixties-early seventies by The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and The Undisputed Truth, among others.

The extra tracks included on the old bonus 45 single are good too, particularly the dreamy Saturn and the funk of All Day Sucker.

The “single album would have been better” argument always prevails with double albums, however. Always has. Personally I am happy to listen to the whole lot. Although my favourite Stevie Wonder album is Innervisions, you simply can’t deny what an achievement this was. It never got any better than this for him, critically, even non-soul fans seem to love it. He was still only twenty-six, though, and I often wonder why he didn't go on to equal this or even get remotely near to it. It's a funny thing, genius and its apex.











Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants (1979)


Earth's Garden/The First Garden/Voyage To India/Same Old Story/Venus's Fly-Trap & The Bug/Ai No Sono/Seasons/Power Flower/Send One Your Love/Race Babbling/Send One Your Love Part 2/Outside My Window/Black Orchid/Ecclesiastes/Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye/Come Back As A Flower/A Seed's A Star-Tree Medley/The Secret Life Of Plants/Tree/Finale


The eagerly-awaited follow-up to the widely-acclaimed high point of 1976's Songs In The Key Of Life was this, the low point of Stevie Wonder's career. It is a sprawling double album made up of ambient synthesiser-dominated instrumentals intended for use in a little-known nature documentary and, in between, there are a few "proper" songs. Overall, however, on the surface, it is not much of a listen. I'm not big on ambient, soundtrack music to be honest and, although I want to give credit to the album as a brave creation, it is, to an extent, simply too long, too sprawling and too uneventful to gain any real continued attention from me - or so it initially seemed. Indeed, after a few listens, as with many things, I found myself warming to it. Yes, it is not its illustrious predecessor, but dig deep and there are some subtle treats to be found. Indeed, I've just listened to it again and really enjoyed it. Funny how music can have that delayed effect, isn't it?


Back to the album itself, of the instrumentals, Voyage To India is a George Harrison-esque, chilled-out number, but most of them can be overlooked, unfortunately. They do not have the appeal of, say, Contusion from the previous album, although Ecclesiastes has a sonorous, churchy appeal and Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye has some nice African rhythms. Check out the great bass solo in Finale too. 


Same Old Story is a typical, walking pace Wonder ballad while Power Flower is an appealing enough, melodic slow number too, although it sounds a little under-produced. Race Babbling is a welcome piece of vibrant spacey and bassy funk featuring some muffled vocals. It is one of my favourites on the album and has a quirky appeal.


The best material is to be found on the album's second half. Send One Your Love was a single and is another of those archetypal Wonder slow ballads. It is sleepily enjoyable. A rare bit of energy is to be found on the livelier Outside My Window and, for a short while here, it is as if we are listening to a proper Stevie Wonder album again. This feeling is continued on the gently beautiful Black Orchid


Come Back As A Flower features ex-wife Syreeta Wright on vocals and has a pleasant, airy, Samba-esque feel to it, along with some subtly infectious percussion. A Seed's A Star is an upbeat, enjoyable song which, although it has crowd noises on it is not (I think) a live recording. The last regulation song on the album is the somnolent The Secret Life Of Plants.


It would probably have been better to put the best few tracks of this on to the next album but Wonder did what he wanted to do, so fair play to him for that. It is not as bad as many have said, it is just subtle, cultured, unshowy and different.





Hotter Than July (1980)


Did I Hear You Say You Love Me/All I Do/Rocket Love/I Ain't Gonna Stand For It/As If You Read My Mind/Master Blaster (Jammin')/Do Like You/Cash In Your Face/Lately/Happy Birthday


This was arguably Stevie Wonder's last genuinely acclaimed album, and it came four years after his meisterwerk, Songs In The Key Of Life. It bears more relation, however, to Fulfillingness' First Finale or Talking Book. In between Songs In The Key Of Life and this album had come a year after the comparatively underwhelming and conceptually experimental A Journey Into The Secret Life Of Plants and we saw critics dusting off their "return to form" clichés. 


Many of the songs merge somewhat clumsily into each other, leading to a bit of a lack of cohesion to the album, for me. 


Did I Hear You Say You Love Me is a vibrant, uptempo piece of typical Wonder keyboard-driven poppy funk. The song comes to an abrupt halt and we are launched straight into the more smooth, laid-back soul of All I Do. It is blessed with an instantly catchy chorus and features that familiar lumpy Wonder drum sound that he had used on many of his earlier albums in the seventies. The song has an easy-going funkiness to it that makes it hard to resist. It was a little-known single released by Tammi Terrell in 1966. I bet you didn't know that.


Rocket Love is far more gentle in pace and its soulful, seductive slow rhythm and it breaks out into an appealing chorus. Again, it is similar to some of Wonder's 1972-1974 material. I Ain't Gonna Stand For It is one of the album's four big hits and has a lively, brassy beat that reminds me of You Haven't Done Nothin' from 1973's Innervisions. It was covered by Eric Clapton on his 2001 Reptile album. 


Another slightly incongruous-sounding segue leads us straight into the bubbling Wonderfunk of As If You Read My Mind, which is the most Songs In The Key Of Life song here. We are treated to the album's first (and only) harmonica solo on this one. 


Master Blaster (Jammin') begins the original "side two" with a reggae-inspired shuffling number that namechecks Bob Marley and refers to his song, Jamming. It is an irresistible song that was deservedly a big hit single and is arguably the album's stand-out track, despite its breezy, fun ambience. A solid horn-driven funker is next in Do Like You and a similar groove is found in Cash In Your Face

The album ends with its other two hits - the late-night, romantic piano and vocal ballad Lately and the ebullient, singalong Martin Luther King tribute, Happy Birthday.













In Square Circle (1985)


Part Time Lover/I Love You Too Much/Whereabouts/Stranger On The Shore Of Love/Never In Your Sun/Spiritual Walkers/Land Of La La/Go Home/Overjoyed/It’s Wrong (Apartheid)


It was the eighties, and synth pop or sophisti-pop or whatever was the order of the day. This album delivers that in large wine bar glass fulls. Five years from his previous album, Wonder had kept things ticking over with two incredibly cheesy but huge hits in Ebony And Ivory with Paul McCartney and the soundtrack smash I Just Called To Say I Love You from the movie The Lady In Red. Here, he reverted to being more credible once more, in an albeit poppy fashion. It is a pleasantly underrated and easily digestible ten-track album.


Part Time Lover was a great single, a deserved hit - catchy, singalong and so very mid-eighties in its classy, slick, synthy sound as too is the effortless, keyboard-driven funk of I Love You Too Much. This is a song that harks back to the best of the Hotter Than July album, nobody did this sort of thing as well as Stevie, it stands as very much a trademark of his unique sound. 


Whereabouts is a typical Wonder slow ballad and Stranger On The Shore Of Love is a breezy, carefree and summery piece of upbeat but smooth pop funk. Never In Your Sun has some nice, intriguing groovy percussion backing on it and a general overall feel good factor. Nice harmonica too.


Spiritual Walkers is nicely and chuggily funky, although in a mid-eighties synthy way. Land Of La La is a lively number that sounds most un-Wonder-ish and more like something The Pointer Sisters were putting out at the time. A pleasingly warm funky groove continues on Go Home. These are really enjoyable tracks, emphasising what an unexpected joy this album is.


After such a run of lively numbers, it is time for a ballad with the archetypally Wonder strains of Overjoyed. The tempo is back up for the closer, the catchy, rhythmic funk of It’s Wrong (Apartheid), a track enlivened by its initially understated but increasingly irresistible South African-influenced backing vocals. Overall, this was an energetic, really vibrant album.




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