In a recent interview, Stevie Wonder said, "I think the ultimate is one's nakedness — being stripped of all these [material] things, and if there's such a thing as the soul that speaks — which I do believe — then that would be seen." These almost mystical ideas have a lot to do with the work of this musical genius.
His music is atypical for Motown. He's put out their funkiest, most Memphis-like stuff ("Signed, Sealed, Delivered") as well as their most pop-sounding material, with little in the middle ground. While many of the best Motown songs are of great psychological complexity, the lyrics to Stevie's songs often have a hollow ring. Sometimes they have almost nothing to do with the song: they just keep on coming, for example, from "Never Had A Dream Come True" "True love is no sin/Therefore men are men, not machines."
He's more concerned with pure sound and melody than with the meaning of words. The most memorable and expressive line of "My Cherie Amour" is the "La-la-la-la-la-la." At the end of "You Met Your Match," he rapidly repeats the title phrase seven times. You lose sight of the meaning of the phrase and get caught up in the sound of it, the alliteration. And that sound is a battle, in fact, the battle of the sexes that the song is about.
The most dramatic case of this mystical use of sound is "Sugar," a beautiful song unfortunately not on this album. It begins with two stanzas, punctuated by a chorus of "Sugar, I want to be your main boy." Then comes the astounding third stanza — language is stripped away. Steve and the girls sing "oo-sha-ya" and the horns and drums come to a hair-raising climax. It is as close to hearing a soul speak directly as vocal music is likely to get.
Stevie's written many truly lovely melodies like "My Cherie Amour" and "If You Really Love Me," and also composed two of the finest uptempo R&B numbers — "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and "Tears of A Clown." (Stevie wrote the music, but not the words for the latter.) Recently he's begun to produce his own records and has done great things in that area — like the horn arrangement and echoing effects in his latest single, "If You Really Love Me."
He has never written a song by himself. His list of collaborators is long — including Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby, his wife, Syreeta Wright, and occasionally his mother. Generally I prefer the songs they and Stevie wrote together to the more pop stuff Ron Miller wrote for him, like "Heaven Help Us All." "For Once In My Life," however, fits into Stevie's vision in a way that Miller's pop songs don't. The arrangement in general, and Stevie's phrasing in particular, are brilliant.
Most of the songs on this Greatest Hits record were, in reality, big-selling records. The few that weren't, with one exception, are just as interesting as those that were. One is a traditional ballad, "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer." It takes a few times to adjust to it, but once you do, it's overwhelming. A lot of albums of this sort become dull because of repetition of certain hit formulas. But Stevie's versatility pulls him through. As a result, this Greatest Hits album is one of the most relaxing sophisticated — and euphoric — albums recently released.