Begin at the end. Stevie Wonder's Journey through the Secret Life of Plants is so uneven, so full of tiny pleasures and bloated tedium, that for some assurance that Wonder hasn't lost his touch, you ought to start by listening to the LP's last cut. "Finale" commences with a quick, slapstick keyboard fill and then expands into an undulating instrumental whose billowing bass and synthesizers evoke a quivering field of flowers in bloom. Not only that, but the song works on an additional level as a sly parody of the kind of sweet bombast associated with silent-film melodramas.
After the delights of "Finale," however, you're on your own, since plucking the exhilarating moments from Journey through the Secret Life of Plants is a harrowing, highly subjective task. One person's nectar is another's Karo syrup, and the stamens of Wonder's Plants are bursting with both.
The most problematic aspect of this album is the way it's been presented: as Stevie Wonder's first major studio release since Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. Well, yes and no. Most of the music here is from the soundtrack for a three-year-old film, The Secret Life of Plants, which was, in turn, based on a best-selling book.
As movie music, the LP succeeds, sometimes to mesmerizing effect. The entire first side, for example, coheres as a musical-botanical Talking Book of Genesis. The opening cut is called "Earth's Creation," and for once such a presumptuous title doesn't overreach. Out of a cool, primordial silence emerge the wet, squeaky sounds of seeds thrusting up and out, like one of those Walt Disney nature documentaries in which stop-action photography shows a tulip blossoming in seconds.
Stevie Wonder creates sounds that are impossible to identify: the high, wafting trills that float through Journey through the Secret Life of Plants' four sides might have been made by synthesizers, a string section, clarinets, any combination of these or none at all. Wonder's technical mastery (he produced the disc and plays almost every instrument) works well in the service of the all-suggestive mysticism at the center of both the film's subject (plants' secret lives as a key to human knowledge) and his own career.
But Wonder is caught in a dilemma. He's too passionate to follow fully the old adage that good movie music stays in the background, repeats itself and guides the observer from scene to scene in an unobtrusive, reassuring manner. Sometimes he will and sometimes he won't. The result is a strange succession of stunted songs, nattering ballads and wandering instrumentals that relies on the tiresome reprises of the most desultory soundtrack albums, the kind you buy for fond memories of the film but then never play. There's "Send One Your Love" — a serenade built around a thin, quavering keyboard riff — given to us first as an instrumental orchestrated with a synthesized zither straight out of The Third Man, and then later as hit-single product adorned by woozy lyrics. Check out the ridiculously obvious theme song about the "discoveries we find inside the Secret Life of Plants." And the wincingly ponderous mock-disco of "A Seed's a Star and Tree Medley."
But there's one entrancing, astute theme burrowing under Journey through the Secret Life of Plants that I'm sure is all Wonder's because of its recurrence in his previous work: the comparison of plants and children. "Venus' Flytrap and the Bug" climaxes with a child's beseeching voice, while "Seasons" begins as a bedtime story to a wide-awake little inquisitor. A chorus of Oriental children sings a verse of "Ai No Sono."
Like the radicalized Rousseau he is, Stevie Wonder presumes nature to exist in a state of pure innocence. Thus, the presexual condition of children is equated with green, tender sprouts — a neat, bold leap. Less neat and bold is the sad fact that, probably for the same reason, Wonder's longtime musical representation of sensual awareness — tough, terse R&B and rock & roll — never penetrates Journey through the Secret Life of Plants. For a double-LP's worth of music, we're left with a few lovely but overwrought pop melodies, a renewed respect for Wonder's technical prowess and an even fiercer desire to hear what he'll create when he's unfettered by the bana! restrictions of a movie-soundtrack assignment. And oh, yes: a gorgeous, funny "Finale."