Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, like some big Hollywood studio blockbuster, comes to us already weighted down with words, stabbed with exclamation points and wrapped — or is it shrouded? — in great expectations. Two years in the making, the album’s imminent release was announced several times, and each time it was withdrawn to be haggled over, reworked, expanded and gossiped about until its release at the end of September. It is nothing if not ambitious: two records plus a four-cut “bonus” EP disc — 21 songs in all — complete with lyric booklet and embarrassingly detailed notes thanking everyone from his mother and father to rack jobbers and stewardesses. The excessive gratitude (including an alphabetical list of over 150 names, from Abdul Jabbar to Frank Zappa) stands in contrast to the production credits, which are typically spare. This is another personal tour de force: Wonder produced, arranged, wrote and composed everything here (only three songs list cowriters); he sings all leads and most of the backing tracks as well; and, though a number of stars (George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Minnie Riperton, Bobbi Humphrey, Deniece Williams, Syreeta Wright) make cameo appearances, the majority of the cuts list at most four or five other musicians besides Wonder and many list only him. Wonder confronts us virtually single-handedly, grasps our expectations and wrestles them to the ground. I give him four out of five falls gratefully, happily; were it not for his lyrics he might have won them all.
My immediate impression of Songs in the Key of Life is that the album has none of the pinched, overwrought, overre-fined quality one might expect from material that’s been coddled and polished over a period of two years. If there are scattered traces of icy, brittle perfection, the overall feeling is expansive, spontaneous and startlingly immediate. Wonder’s particular genius is that his carefully crafted perfection sounds so convincingly offhand. Unfortunately, the album cover — featuring Wonder’s image sinking into a vortex of what resembles orange crepe paper — looks not only offhand but like a last-minute amateur effort; the effect is hideous and offensively cheap, considering the album’s $13.98 list price.
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The material itself varies so widely that even after weeks of listening it’s difficult to get a critical fix on. This is one of the album’s pleasures — I found myself constantly discovering and falling in love with new cuts I’d somehow overlooked. The album offers something fresh at each listening, something right for every mood. But it’s also one of the record’s annoyances — it has no focus or coherence. The eclecticism is rich and welcome, but the overall effect is haphazard, turning what might have been a stunning, exotic feast into a hastily organized potluck supper.
Part of the problem is the bulk of the material. The inclusion of four straggling cuts on a bonus EP comes across finally as a self-indulgent rather than generous gesture. Are we being given this heap of songs as a dog-biscuit reward for our patience or because Stevie had such a staggering amount of fine material that he wanted to release as much as possible? Though the first impulse is to begin editing it down, the more you listen, the less you want to cut. With some rather appalling exceptions, the quality does overwhelm the unwieldy format.
The best songs in the collection are love songs, which are classic in their directness and simplicity. “Another Star” bursts with an aching, tender passion —
There might be a brighter star
But through my eyes the light of you is all I see.
There might be another song
But all my heart can hear is your melody
— that’s turned loose in the dense, danceable Brazilian-flavored production. “Knocks Me off My Feet” is slighter, more amused —
I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin ’bout your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet
— but, given Wonder’s understated production and quietly downbeat singing, no less convincing. “Isn’t She Lovely,” about Wonder’s baby girl Aisha, isn’t as substantial lyrically, but Stevie’s irrepressible fatherly joy sets the song aglow, finding its best expression in his sprightly harmonica playing. The beginning, when the baby’s cries are orchestrated to a thumping drumbeat and suddenly sound like shouts from African ritual music, is especially brilliant. In “As,” a long, elaborate song of utter dedication to love, Stevie vows, “I’ll be loving you always/ Until the day is night and night becomes the day” (other images are filled with a childlike surrealism: “Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky . . . until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea”). This song, like a number of the longer cuts on the album, drags into repetition at the end but Stevie’s vocals are so charged and varied that he pushes you past the point of boredom; the words themselves fade as that voice grabs hold. Throughout, Wonder confirms his position as the most astonishing, expressive male singer performing today. His voice contains its own history, from the riveting rawness of Little Stevie Wonder to the husky, warm ballad style of his recent albums. And he delights in playing these voices against one another from separate tracks, teasing us with his virtuosity, flaunting it with jumping, jiving glee.
Wonder’s message songs have always been a bit heavy-handed, but “Black Man,” at 8:29 the album’s longest track, is one of his most effective. Set to a percolating, popping rhythm, the song is essentially didactic, a Bicentennial history lesson drawing together key figures in America’s melting pot with a forceful chorus that preaches (and sometimes demands), “It’s time we learned/This world was made for all men.” It ends with a shrill, aggressive question-and-answer session that might work as a teaching tool but is too brutal for a piece of music. Elsewhere, Wonder sings of “Village Ghetto Land,” describing an almost Brechtian scene of despair and corruption over a deliberately ironic piece of elegant, mock-classical music. Two other songs — “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” whose point is neatly summed up in the title, and “Ngiculela/Es Una Historia/I Am Singing,” sung in Zulu, Spanish and English — are more predictably about Love, as in Peace and Love, but in Wonder’s hands they take on a warmth that transcends the shallowness of the lyrics.
Wonder’s lyrics aren’t clever or particularly intelligent but, at their best, they’re instinctive, straightforward and touchingly sincere. Unfortunately, at their worst they’re convoluted, awkward, atrociously rhymed and so tangled up in their pretensions to “poetic” style that they become almost comical. Songs in the Key of Life has more than its share of Wonder at his worst: “Have a Talk with God” suggests that “He’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world”; “Ordinary Pain,” an otherwise enjoyable, gritty number, begins,
When by the phone
In vain you sit
You very soon in your mind realize that it’s not just
An ordinary pain in your heart;
“Pastime Paradise” sounds like a parody of a well-meaning protest song with its meaningless shuffle of words (“Consolation/Integration/Verification/of Revelations”). Even the best songs are marred by uncomfortably twisted phrasing (“To me came this melody”; “But listen did I not though understanding/I fell in love with one/Who would break my heart in two”) and sunk with leaden platitudes. Stevie underlines this dismal writing with his rambling liner notes. “Songs in the Key of Life,” he writes, “is only a conglomerate of thoughts in my subconscious that my Maker decided to give me the strength, the love+love-hate = love energy making it possible for me to bring to my conscious an idea.”
Yet even the most preposterous lyrics are salvaged by Wonder’s melodies and sure, sharp production sense. Though the words to “Pastime Paradise” may make you want to run from the room, the music will keep you there, with its fascinating blend of what sounds like a string quartet set to a delicate Latin beat. And the song’s final build, joining Wonder’s vocal with a gospel choir and chanting Hare Krishna followers, is as inventive and exciting as anything on the album. If the lyrics are flawed and uneven, the productions are, without exception, excellent. What he can’t say in words he can say more fluidly, subtly and powerfully in his music. So it’s Wonder’s music, his spirit, that dominates here and seems to fill up the room. It’s his voice — also beyond mere words, into pure expression — that snatches you up. And won’t let go.