It would be hard to underestimate the influential legacy of Stevie Wonder, a 1989 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. After recording a stack of ’60s singles that helped define the sound of Motown, Wonder was also the artist who broke that mold by succeeding with a more personal and political style of music. Still, it’s easy to understand the reticence that has let Wonder go eight years between major releases. Like Prince, whom Wonder acknowledges in the notes to his brilliant new Conversation Peace, Wonder is a master musician unsure of his role in a decade dominated by rap.
While Conversation Peace is reminiscent of such outstanding Wonder albums of the ’70s as Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, its lean execution also gives the collection a pleasingly modern sound. As usual, Wonder plays one-man band with strategic vocal assists and instrumental additions, but the results are considerably looser than on Characters (1987). With snappy rhythms on the uptempo tunes and ballads that fall safely short of sappy, Conversation Peace speaks in a language that is both classic and contemporary.
The repertoire is typically eclectic. Wonder’s finely honed arrangements endow the reggae of “Tomorrow Robins Will Sing” with a bounce while letting the horn section add a saucy hook to “Edge of Eternity.” Wonder’s most pleasing departure is the jazzy funk of “Sensuous Whisper,” with his acoustic piano playfully tumbling around the sax and trumpet, respectively, of Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard and his vocal artfully complemented by Anita Baker’s accompaniment.
Wonder’s singing is as playful as it is precise, with his melody lines consistently enriched by imaginatively deployed background vocals. “I’m New” is the best of the ballads, with Take 6 and Denise Williams adding evocative support to a tune that blossoms into a poignantly affirmative chorus. Ladysmith Black Mambazo join Wonder on “Take the Time Out,” a buoyant tune about the downbeat subject of homelessness. Wonder succeeds with this unlikely mix of happy sounds and sad situations by putting the lyrics’ emphasis on the spiritual uplift that comes from the opportunity to help the less fortunate.
Wonder uses a similar strategy in addressing the deadly proliferation of handguns on “My Love Is With You.” Atop a swinging track, Wonder sings from the perspective of kids caught in the deadly crossfire of gang violence. Wonder’s words offer a perspective too often ignored by gangsta rappers, who would perhaps dismiss Wonder’s social observations as out of touch. In these reactionary days, however, Wonder’s sentiments sound as bracing as the music of Conversation Peace.