“Skeletons,” the sly first single from Characters, is a brilliant Wonder work, an edgy number driven by the same socially conscious anger that fueled his Seventies classics “You Haven’t Done Nothin,” “Living for the City” and “Big Brother.” Whether or not “Skeletons” was written as Stevie’s soundtrack to the Contragate scandal (“They’re gettin’ ready to deal/You’re gettin’ ready to ill/Somebody done just dropped the big dime/And they’re gettin’ ready to squeal”), it certainly makes for a fine, funky one.
Elsewhere on Characters, Wonder is at his best when he works up a musical sweat: “Get It,” a duet with Michael Jackson, is no gem of songwriting, but it’s certainly a more successful attempt at a tough-edged rehash of “The Girl Is Mine” than the pair’s “Just Good Friends,” which appears on Jackson’s Bad. “Dark ‘n’ Lovely” is an infectious and, yes, danceable antiapartheid song. And Wonder also shines on the slight “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down,” which features some guitar help from B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (It’s one of two tracks — the other is “My Eyes Don’t Cry” — that appear only on the Characters CD and cassette.) Even better is “Free,” a vaguely Latin-sounding number that builds with a gospellike power as it goes along.
At times, Wonder wanders into cosmic lyrical banalities (“Galaxy Paradise”) or belabors pretty but boring melodies (“You Will Know”). But even if Characters isn’t quite up to the level of Wonder’s best work, it is still an undeniable pleasure to have him communicating his compelling inner visions to the rest of us.