Complain all you want about Stevie Wonder taking his sweet time — ten years of it in this case — to deliver a new record. On A Time to Love, the soul giant (and notoriously fussy producer) used that go-slow approach where it really counts: in the grooves. The best tracks on this much-superior follow-up to 1995’s flabby Conversation Peace reconnect Wonder with a key trait of “Superstition” and much of his storied Seventies output: a rhythm section that keeps to its own sauntering, funky schedule.
Almost half of the fifteen songs recall Wonder at his prime — they start from a crisp, nothing-fancy backbeat and gather drama as they steamroll along. The opening strut, “If Your Love Can Not Be Moved,” which features gospel powerhouse Kim Burrell, gradually swells into cinematic hugeness. “Tell Your Heart I Love You,” which sports one of the most addictive refrains Wonder has written since “Master Blaster,” works because there’s room for the sweeping, pleading melody, which Wonder sings and plays on harmonica, to unwind. The noirish ballad “Moon Blue” inspires dazzling vocal ad-libs from Wonder — enough to give most Mariah Carey disciples nightmares. And “Positivity,” one of two tracks featuring Wonder’s daughter Aisha Morris (previously heard splashing in the tub on “Isn’t She Lovely”), turns on a tightly wound Jackson 5-style pulse that is the essence of optimism.
Several of the remaining songs are much less satisfying: “Shelter in the Rain,” the album’s designated hurricane-relief track, is overwrought, and “Passionate Raindrops” and “My Love Is On Fire” are gunked-up clutter. But when Wonder gets a good idea, he instinctively leaves it alone, letting that strong and eternal spirit that animates all his best work shine through, in its own sweet time.