Counterbalance No. 42: Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’

Stevie Wonder

Klinger: We’ve now spent a considerable amount of time discussing one of the most impressive LP runs in all of pop history: the 1968-1972 output of the Rolling Stones (and according to the Great List, we’ll be hitting it again next week). This week’s Counterbalance marks the first fruit of another stunning batch of albums. Stevie Wonder was darn near infallible from 1972 to 1976, with Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and this album, 1973’s Innervisions.

In light of this, I’d like to posit a theory: At some point on the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour, some bizarre form of hoodoo took place, causing the group’s album-making mojo to be transferred to Stevie Wonder, who ably served as the opening act. The Stones moved on the relatively underwhelming Goats Head Soup, while Stevie became an unstoppable force well into the Carter Administration. We’ll never know for sure what exactly happened on that fateful tour, but given the sheer quality on display I for one am pretty glad it did.

Mendelsohn: Are talking about a transfer of the muse? A muse swap? What’s the proper term for that? Maybe she tired of Mick and Keith’s antics and wanted to hang out with someone more wholesome. Whatever it was, up until this Counterbalance I knew next to nothing about Stevie Wonder aside from the fact that he’s blind and he can play the piano, which would be more impressive if Ray Charles hadn’t done it first.

Klinger: Hmm, I believe Art Tatum would like to have a word with you . . .

Mendelsohn: After spinning Innervisions a couple of times, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is an enjoyable listen but I find myself wondering if I would ever drop the needle on another Stevie Wonder record. The answer, of course, is yes, because his 1976 record Songs in the Key of Life is only four slots away. So I guess I better get to know Mr. Wonder a little bit better.

Klinger: Wait, what? An enjoyable listen? Were you not paying attention before? Stevie Wonder was darn near infallible during the period from 1972 to 1976. Darn near. And Innervisions may well be the best of the bunch (although I’ll count the votes for Talking Book). I’d put Innervisions on the Great List just for the deliriously loopy intro to “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”. And for “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, which might not be the most specific anti-Nixon song ever written, but it’s certainly the most delightful.

I’ve got half a mind to say it belongs on there just for the part on “Too High” where Stevie performs a harmonica duet with himself. But add to that the deep funk, the sweet soul, and the tender balladry (OK, I’m not a nut for the tender balladry), and you have a ridiculously solid album. Is it “Visions” and its ilk that’s got you puzzled here? Because I can’t think of any other reason you wouldn’t be sufficiently effusive.

Mendelsohn: No, I heard you. Blah, blah, blah, darn near infallible, blah, blah, blabbity-blah. I got it. The reason I’m not coming across as sufficiently effused is because I’m not. I mean, I love Innervisions, but I’m not in love with it. I’m just trying to let this album down easy, you know? We go out, we have lots of fun on tracks like, “Too High”, “Living for the City”, “Higher Ground”, and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”, but then when we sit down for some serious get-to-know-you conversation we just aren’t able to click. “Visions”, “Golden Lady”, and “All in Love is Fair” somehow don’t hit the mark and I find myself wondering if it would be best just to end the relationship here instead of leading this record on and letting it think that it could be part of my life. It’s not you, Innervisions, it’s me. Maybe we should just be friends.

Klinger: I understand. For a long time, I had trouble reconciling the notion that there were two Stevie Wonders (Stevies Wonder?), the boy genius who went on to bring social consciousness to the funk and the schmaltzmeister whose collision course with “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was, in retrospect, all but inevitable. I still have trouble fully appreciating the softer side of Stevie, but I tolerate him a lot better than I used to.

I think part of the problem is that his more exuberant numbers are so, so good. You put on Innervisions because you remember how perfect “Living for the City” is (and it’s further proof that, for my money, Stevie Wonder was one of the great—if not the great—singles artists of the 1970s). When you settle in for a listen, his more introspective tunes come on, then, you can’t help wishing that he would stop doing that and get back to bringing the funk. We want so much for these albums to be party records (because the party jams are so good), that we aren’t willing to accept the artistry that goes into his ballads. I’ve found that once you stop thinking of songs like “Golden Lady” as being the thing you have to sit through to get to “Higher Ground”, you can enjoy those songs a whole lot more.

I think helps also to remember that there’s quite a bit in Wonder’s core that’s essentially jazz-oriented. Once he started really writing for himself, Wonder’s use of sophisticated chords immediately set him apart from his Motown contemporaries. You can certainly hear the jazz influences in the soaring, wordless sections in “Living for the City”, and they’re very much threaded through the DNA of songs like “Visions”.

Mendelsohn: Look, I appreciate the fact that it isn’t party 24/7 with Stevie. If it was, that would be cool and all, but I think I would get tired of it by the third week or so. I respect him more because he’s multifaceted. In his hands, the jazz genre doesn’t seem so obtuse. He has a knack for weaving some rather difficult material (be it lyrical or musical) into highly accessible songs, and he makes it look easy. I assume another reason why Innervisions is on the Great List is because of Stevie’s ability to write a songs like “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” but sandwich in the flowery “Golden Lady” without missing a beat. And on top of that, we slide right into the hypnotic “Jesus Children of America”, which I don’t understand, but can’t stop nodding my head whenever it’s on. Klinger, this album is too good for me. I don’t deserve it.

Klinger: Well, “Jesus Children of America” is really just a gospel song dressed up to fit the times, which would explain the reference to groovier stuff like transcendental meditation. Throughout the song there are echoes of the gospel train that’s calling all the sinners to get on board, although this time it’s calling out for junkies and asking the holy rollers if maybe they aren’t really hypocrites.

But this whole album is so topical—and so of its time—I can’t help feeling like I’ve been swept back in time to 1973, when so many of these songs were absolutely everywhere. AM radio, my parents’ red VW Bug, “Higher Ground”—you know, come to think of it, it was an awesome time to be a four-year-old. Of course, Wonder’s lyrics on songs like “Living for the City” certainly point out that the awesomeness was not exactly disseminated equally throughout society at that time.

And so you may say that you’re able to quit Innervisions now, Mendelsohn, but six months after you walk away from this album I guarantee you’ll be all like, “Please Innervisions, I swear I can change. Just let me back in Innervisions . . .” And you know what? Innervisions will take you back.

Mendelsohn: You know what they say, Klinger: if you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it was meant to be. I’m going to let go Innervisions go. And maybe, one day down the line, when we are both a little more mature we will reconnect and the sparks will fly. Or maybe, I’ll meet Innervisions’ hotter, younger, wilder sibling Songs in the Key of Life and find that record more to my liking. That would make for some awkward family dinners but only time will tell . . . only time will tell . . .

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