Stevie Wonder’s second album this year is in many ways a reprise with variations of the first, Music of My Mind. Both are ambitious, richly-textured, almost entirely the work of Wonder himself, who produced (with assistance, primarily on the Moog work, from Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff), composed the music and all but a few of the lyrics, plays the bulk of the instrumental tracks (aided here and there on Talking Book by eight musicians including, on one cut, Jeff Beck and Buzzy Feiten) and sings densely multi-tracked. Both albums carry Wonder’s music into a new mode, a vigorous, complex style based in Stevie’s experiment’s with the synthesizers and his at once playful and assured use of studio techniques. What flaws there were in Music of My Mind resulted from an overindulgence in techniques, a sort of let’s-see-how-this-sounds fascination with gimmickry which seems to have been brought under control in the new album. So Talking Book is more relaxed, dreamy at times, the laid-back funk of the vocals resting on a deliciously liquid instrumental track like a body on a waterbed. Yet there’s never a lack of energy: Even at its dreamiest, the music has a glowing vibrancy. Talking Book, then, is an extension and refinement of the work begun in Music of My Mind (itself a vast refinement of the uneven efforts in Where I’m Coming From), confirming the achievement and getting more comfortable with it. Making it all seem quite effortless, Wonder has produced another of the very best albums this year.
Most of the love songs on Talking Book have a romantic idealism reflected in the shimmering, translucent quality of the music. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “You and I (We Can Conquer the World),” “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” all share this quality without becoming redundant. “I Believe,” about the best of this group, begins with a kind of delicately shaded sadness (Yvonne Wright’s lyrics: “Shattered dreams, worthless years/ Here am I encased inside a hollow shell/ Life began, then was done/ Now I stare into a cold and empty well”) and ends in a partying mood with Stevie shouting, “Come on, let’s fall in love.” In between, the movement of the song is a gradual opening up, hitting a peak in an exhilarating repetition of the title, Wonder’s voice, gorgeously orchestrated on an infinity of tracks, testifying almost gospel-style to the power of love. “Blame It on the Sun” is perhaps the loveliest cut here, with a subtle, atmospheric use of the synthesizer, an instrument Wonder continues to use with masterful restraint, only rarely allowing it to overpower the other instrumentation on the album.
The album’s longest cut is another one of its best: “Maybe Your Baby” carries on for nearly seven minutes in a state of exalted despair, riding the rumblings of the synthesizer to an exalted despair, riding the rumblings of the synthesizer to an extended build of a finale. Stevie turns his song of betrayed love (“Maybe your baby done made some other plans”) into a powerful, somewhat upbeat dance number, the repetition taunting with a vengeance and hypnotizing. “Superstition” is another hard dance cut, picking up some organ feeling from Billy Preston and just the right surge of bright horn work. Altogether, an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer. Also, it might be noted, one of Motown’s handsomest covers, braille and all.