It’s only when I stop dancing and singing all around the room and sit down to think critically about it, that it occurs to me Stevie Wonder’s new album may not be the great album of the year. It’s certainly the best thing to come out of Motown since Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and perhaps even more impressive as a personal achievement considering Wonder not only wrote, arranged and produced the entire album but (with the exception of a solo run by ex-Butterfield guitarist Buzzy Feiton on “Superwoman” and a trombone solo by Art Baron on another cut) played every instrument. A multi-tracked one-man band, with Stevie on piano, drums, harmonica, organ, clavichord, clavinet plus the Arp and Moog synthesizers with their various attachments (on the synthesizers he is assisted by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, listed as associate producer). Sounds like an ego extravaganza — and if examined closely Music of My Mind does bear some of the stretch marks remaining from his last album overreach, the abrasively uneven Where I’m Coming From. Only this time everything seems to fall quite comfortably within Stevie’s grasp and the effect is both satisfying and exciting.
It’s satisfying if you’re willing to overlook a few flaws, some of which have cropped up in his other recent work. Most would fall under the heading Self – Indulgence: a tendency toward gimmickry that often eludes his fine sense of control. So, for instance, the electronically distorted background voice in the opening cut, “Love Having You Around,” goes right past being clever and witty to being merely irritating. The playful finish of the same cut and the spoken portions of “Sweet Little Girl” simply gets too cute. The not-quite-definable distortion that affects the vocal on “Girl Blue,” is at first somehow haunting, but then a gnawing distraction. Surprisingly, this indulgence rarely affects the music with the result that Wonder’s is one of the very few down-to-earth uses of the synthesizer — no attempts at space music here, no swollen, overripe breaks engulfing two-thirds of the album, only funky, exuberant music of the sort we’ve come to expect from Stevie Wonder.
“Keep On Running” is a knockout. The cut begins with a kind of ominous tangle of electronic squiggles, piano, nervous cymbal clashes and dark bassy threats as Stevie sings, “Something gonna get you/Something gonna grab you/Something gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you.” After two verses and a few anticipatory beats, the song breaks out in earnest, the beat picks up and Stevie repeats, “Keep on running/Keep on running from my love.” I can’t remember hearing a synthesizer sound so exciting and alive. Later, as the music gets hotter, and Stevie more mock-threatening, a girls’ chorus comes in and all build together on a relentless repetition of “Keep on running, running from my love” that takes up the better part of the song’s more than six minutes. If you can listen to this sitting very still in your chair, something is wrong.
At about half that length, “I Love Every Little Thing About You” has the same sort of vitality. An utterly joyous song built around another repeated chorus, “Every Little Thing” uses Stevie as an “instrument” as well as a voice: he amplifies his breath being exhaled through the teeth as well as open-mouthed — a beautiful, subtle sound I associate with Brazilian music and marvelously effective here. “Love Having You Around,” the first single released from the LP, succeeds in spite of an excess of effects. As with most of the material, the song has an irresistible high spirit captured perfectly in a strange blend of voice and music, processed and un-processed. Stevie’s voice without distortions is still one of the great pleasures — deeply expressive and warm, always rich — and since he does much of his own accompaniment double and triple-tracked, the variety and wit of his singing style has never been more evident. Wonder also seems to have come into his own as a songwriter. His lyrics are generally simple, playful, unpretentious; even some of the more self-conscious lines in “Girl Blue” work nicely. Yet the words have little inspiration when compared with the music, which is constantly inventive within a rather simple structure. Wonder never overloads his songs musically; instead, his weakness seems to be with the vocal tracks.
Two other cuts should be noted. “Superwoman” is in two parts, both quiet and thoughtful but quite distinct. The first seems to be a rejection of the dominating (or maybe just too independent) woman and in part an attempt to reach an understanding with her (the harmonizing part: “Very well, I believe I know you very well”). In the second section, Stevie deals with inconstancy “Where were you when I needed you last winter, my love?” I don’t know what to make of the pairing of these two elements; interesting but not especially effective each section in itself is complete and fine. “Happier Than the Morning Sun” is a delight — one of the more ambitious cuts stylistically, or maybe only one of the strongest departures from Wonder’s super-funky style, it might take some adjusting to.
Music of My Mind, the first album on which Wonder has had such total control, is also his first outside the Motown Superstructure (i.e., without Motown arrangers, producers, musicians, studios or supervision of any kind). This is an important step, especially when it’s taken with such strength and confidence as it is here. While it’s not likely to start a trend (there are few at Motown who could afford or would want to abandon the structure that created and nurtured them), Stevie has made a move that’s bound to have some farranging effects.