(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #11 – released August 3, 1973. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 8/14/2014)
Track listing: 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
As a child in the 1980s, to me, Stevie Wonder was a pop music icon of the highest order. He had a hit duet with an ex-Beatle, sang on “We Are the World” and “That’s What Friends Are For”, appeared as himself on The Cosby Show and made good fun of himself while hosting Eddie Murphy-era Saturday Night Live. Even his singular physical appearance was widely recognized and mocked. No other black musician apart from Michael Jackson held such crossover appeal at that time; some might say he milked that appeal for all it was worth, still riding the charts, only with sentimental pap like “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. He was a superstar, albeit one you could too easily take for granted.
Thus, first hearing STEVIE WONDER’S ORIGINAL MUSIQUARIUM 1 in 1993 nearly blew my mind as much as ABBEY ROAD had the previous year. Covering his most creatively fertile and commercially successful decade (roughly 1972-82), it’s one of the best double-album hits compilations ever. Not alive or old enough to recognize most of these songs when they were new, absorbing them all together was a revelation. During this period, Wonder established his independence from the Motown factory formula that served him well as a teenager in the 1960s by recording a string of albums that mixed genres, defied conventions and ended up defining the times. He proved his versatility by scoring number one hits with tunes as disparate as the sharply paranoid but extremely catchy and funky “Superstition” and the much softer (if still unconventional) love song “You Are The Sunshine of My Life”. Both are from TALKING BOOK (1972), his first great album and one I’d unreservedly recommended to any pop music obsessive or Wonder neophyte, along with the monumental SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (1976) and the underrated HOTTER THAN JULY (1980). However, if you really want to understand why ‘70s Stevie transcends any of his ‘80s hackwork or celebrity coasting, the place to begin is INNERVISIONS, his follow-up to TALKING BOOK and simultaneously his tightest and arguably furthest-reaching album.
“Too High” opens INNERVISIONS on a deceptively carefree note, its beat jazzily bouncing along, complimented up top with do-do-do vocals and shaded underneath with warm Fender Rhodes chords. It sounds nothing like Wonder’s Motown past, resembling more of a psych-pop/jazz fusion, particularly when he adds a filter over himself singing the song’s main hook, “I’m too high, I hope I never ever come down,” or inserts a furious, multi-tracked harmonica solo in the middle. Eventually, Wonder’s insouciance gives way to calm but cutting criticism (“She wasn’t very nice,” is how succinctly he sums up the woman in the song). Meditative missive “Visions” immediately follows, and I do mean immediately—each track on INNERVISIONS flows right into the next one with no silence separating them. This doesn’t turn the album into a song suite, but it does emphasize Wonder’s ambition at this stage in his career: he was obviously no longer content to release collections of singles + filler as he did in his youth. That he could take these nine stylistically varied songs and make them sound like they belonged together, effortlessly, is but one facet of Wonder’s achievement here.
“Visions” eschews beats for a tapestry of acoustic and electric guitars held together by the Rhodes and Wonder’s front-and-center passionate tone—it’s one of his loveliest songs and would make for ideal listening while lazing on the ground in the woods or a meadow, staring up at the sky and contemplating all of life’s mysteries. In contrast, “Living For The City” abruptly brings us back to earth. The lyrics detail a harsh reality (specifically for urban African Americans), supported by a steady, propulsive R&B groove—more of what you’d expect from Wonder instead of this psych-pop stuff. The synthesizers he began experimenting with a few albums previously also return—as always, Wonder utilizes them as melodic augmentations rather than exploiting them for their weird, foreign sounds. Unlike the hit radio edit, this version goes on for over seven minutes. Although the playlet inserted in the center hasn’t aged well, the part after it, where the song returns, only with Wonder’s vocal dramatically transformed into a mighty growl has lost none of its bite (and should still shock anyone who perceives him as a drip).
“Living For The City” builds to a cathartic end, with overdubbed Wonder vocals giving way to the extended piano intro kicking off “Golden Lady”. A gorgeous mid-tempo ballad, it concludes side one on a pleasant grace note, the previous song’s vitriol melting away to reveal that good still exists in the modern world. The album’s biggest hit, “Higher Ground” follows, returning to the political activism and relentless groove of “Living For The City”, but with a shift towards the personal and the spiritual. It’s a state-of-the-world address, but in the chorus, Wonder always arrives the same conclusion: “Gonna keep on tryin’ / till I reach my highest ground.” But, near the end, he suggests, “God is gonna show you higher ground.” It’s enough to make skeptics like me ask, “So, which one is it?” The next song only further muddies the waters. “Jesus Children of America” is devout enough for Sufjan Stevens to cover it, but it also casts a critical eye on “holy rollers” (“Are you standing for everything you talk about?,” Wonder straight-out asks); the groove he cooks up here outdoes even the Sly Stone-worthy rhythms of “Higher Ground”, so much that they nearly overpower the lyrics unless you zero in on them (while trying not to shake your booty).
Then, in a shift just as abrupt as that from “Visions” into “Living For The City”, the groove ceases and a full-on lachrymose ballad takes over. “All In Love Is Fair” is the album’s most traditional song, but in many ways, also the riskiest—melodramatic and nearly over-the-top, it’s where Wonder goes for broke. That he does so fearlessly and with full conviction is what saves and enriches the song. His command of the melody and utter sincerity in what he’s singing is best felt in the subtle soft-loud dynamics of both his vocal and the lead piano. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking performance, one only a performer as confident and openhearted as Wonder could pull off. Naturally, it leads into the album’s funniest, most joyous track: “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” instantly replaces the previous song’s melancholy chords with a peppy, descending Latin piano hook, followed by Stevie erupting in a flurry of Ricky Ricardo-like Spanglish as he tries to woo a girl by (unsuccessfully) convincing her of his “very fluent Spanish”. As an intro, it’s a silly skit, but it effectively deflates the last track’s sadness; it also serves as a disarming reminder of just how goofy, relatable and human Wonder could be. As comforting and warm as a visit from a beloved friend, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” sinuously wraps Wonder’s musings about positivity and wisdom around a groove that rivals anything from the album’s midsection.
INNERVISIONS concludes with “He’s Misstra Know It All”, a cautionary character sketch as kind and cutting as “Too High”, but with a stronger sense of resolve and a firmer, call-and-response structure. One could argue that it pulls together the album’s many stylistic strands into a neat whole: a socio-political paean to moral decency without being too preachy, a piano-led mid-tempo shuffle colored with brief swaths of synths, a lyric both about one specific scoundrel and humanity-at-large, etc.; But mostly, musically and tonally, it just fits as an album closer—it even has a nice little coda where Wonder repeats the song title, “Hey Jude” style, as it gradually fades out. INNERVISIONS is not an easy album to examine big-picture-like, as it contains many terrific little moments, all of them of the same, tremendously high quality. There’s not one dud or lesser track on it (a rarity, even on many of the albums I’ll write about for this project). While few expected Wonder to maintain such consistency, no one would’ve ever imagined his output to peter out as much as it eventually did (he’s only released three albums in the last quarter-century, although his Wikipedia page lists three current works-in-progress). In a way, this benefits his legacy—he’s not even trying to compete with his best work. Still, four decades on, INNERVISIONS serves as a potent reminder of the man’s greatness—and it fosters belief in the faint possibility that, any day now, he conceivably could come roaring back with a late-in-life masterpiece.
Up next: The thrill of it all.
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”: