Stevie Wonder has been laying low for the past five years. He couldn't help writing a few songs to fill out the hits compilation Original Musiquarium I, or knocking out soundtrack ditties for 'The Woman in Red'; the man has hit making in his blood. Yet he must have gone through some kind of crisis, because not since 1980's 'Hotter Than July' has he released a full-length, stand-on-its-own album. Since he's waited that long, the new album, In Square Circle, takes on the lineaments of a major statement — but the statement is, No change here.
'In Square Circle' will segue into any Wonder song since the mid-Seventies; like them, it revels in bubbling synthesizers, jazzy chords, puppy-friendly lyrics and, most of all, melodies that stick to your pleasure centers like audio caramel. It has all the stuff Little Stevie Wonder soaked up as a child star at Motown in the 1960s, before he broke away from the hit factory: the neatly tucked-in, crossover-ready hints of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley and, naturally, first-generation Motown, as in the new album's "Part-Time Lover."
There are love songs waiting for their Grammy Awards, a poor-folks number or two and even a message tune (à la "Happy Birthday" and "Don't Drive Drunk"), "It's Wrong (Apartheid)," which will probably have P.W. Botha tapping his toes. From now till Christmas, you'll be hearing the album on CHR and adult-contemporary and rock formats — maybe even MTV, which just barely got around to playing Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" when it was Number One — and you'll be humming along.
Like Musiquarium, In Circle Square has a concept per side: love songs on side one, social-comment songs on side two (although Wonder inserts one more slice of dreaminess, "Overjoyed," before he denounces apartheid). Wonder has already written so many memorable tunes that perhaps his new songs can't help looking back to their predecessors; you can flip through your collection and connect the chromatics of "I Love You Too Much" to "You've Got It Bad Girl," the beat and the keyboard tones of "Go Home" to "All I Do," or the sweep of "Whereabouts" back to "Ribbon in the Sky" and "Lately," if that's your idea of a good time.
Along with his sense of harmony, though, Wonder sounds so trademarked because he keeps things smooth. All around him, people are using synthesizers for blips and crunches and zaps; Wonder prefers throooms and doo-wahs — sustained sounds, or, for rhythm, a ripple here and there.
Sonically, what's new is Wonder's playful ease with digitally sampled sounds, probably from a Fairlight. The instrument can take a real-world noise, analyze it and spread it up and down a keyboard for various manipulations. Instead of scat-singing in "Stranger on the Shore of Love," he takes a digitally sampled "doo" and plays leaping keyboard solos; the splashes in "Overjoyed" are probably digital, as are the metallic noises in "It's Wrong" and the boings that give "I Love You Too Much" a goofy lift.
I could go on and on about how swell the tunes are on In Circle Square — and if you're the kind of person who likes to slap a good album into the cassette deck and forget it, stop reading here. Because much as I admire Wonder's skill, spirit and inexhaustible hooks, when I hum along with In Circle Square I feel a little like I've been had.
For one thing, Wonder seems to be sticking to his reflexes again. On Journey through the Secret Life of Plants, the 1979 double album no one bought, Wonder reached into African, Indian and Asian music, experiments that paid off on Hotter Than July. Doubtless as a result of commercial pressure, In Circle Square retrenches itself in American-style pop; although it still leaves imitators — from Boy George to Narada Michael Walden — in the dust, it's pretty conservative for Wonder.
Then there are the lyrics. Like Paul McCartney, his less swinging British counterpart in melodyland, Wonder has a treacly streak that pays off in hit singles. (For me, it reached overload with "I Just Called to Say I Love You," a song that is either completely icky-poo or the monologue of a Don Juan establishing an alibi.) The love songs on In Square Circle are benign as usual, putting just a little tension into the romance in "Part-Time Lover" and "Stranger on the Shore of Love," but the message songs are dubious.
Usually, Wonder fights his own sweetness-and-light tendencies by slipping in a tough lyric or two among the hummables — surprising down-to-earth stuff like "Living for the City" or "Cash in Your Face" or "Big Brother." On In Square Circle, three social-comment songs open side two. "Spiritual Walkers" righteously defends those Jehovah's Witness types who sell Jesus door-to-door; amusingly, it's set to a rewrite of "Superstition," which had a more cynical view of believing in "things that you don't understand." "Land of La La," with its ominous rock guitars, tells how ambitious boys and girls leave their small town and get ripped off in the big city; "Go Home" is a self-pitying saga of how Stevie told a loyal girl to bug off and then his life fell apart.
One song praising fundamentalist fanatics, one blame-the-victim number and one male-chauvinist special — the girl in "Go Home" agrees to do what Stevie tells her, and he's proud to have that small authority — hint at a Stevie Wonder album for the Reagan era.
Still, let's not overdo it. At press time, I hadn't heard "Sun City," but a catchy antiapartheid tune like "It's Wrong" on an album destined for millions of listeners is no small thing. And while I disagree with "Spiritual Walkers" and distrust "Land of La La," I don't mind singing along — ditto for the rest of In Circle Square. Wonder seems immune to the current epidemic of posturing self-importance, and with his unforced optimism and his no-sweat audio perfectionism, he makes your ears happy, again and again. On In Square Circle, he's as irresistible as ever.