Counterbalance No. 46: Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

Stevie Wonder
Songs in the Key of Life

Klinger: Never mind the fact that it’s only been a few weeks since we last covered a Stevie Wonder album, although it’s curious that Songs in the Key of Life and Innervisions do end up placing so close to one another. Do you realize that it’s been months since we covered a double album? Used to be we couldn’t spit out our window without hitting one of those gatefold monstrosities, and now we’ve had to wait 20 weeks to see another one?

Holy cow, though, is this ever a dense example of a double album—in fact it was originally packaged as 2 LPs and a bonus 7-inch EP. An embarrassment of riches, wouldn’t you say, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: I’ll say. When I first looked over the Great List, I was surprised to see to Stevie Wonder albums in such close proximity. It made me wonder if those albums were that great to run neck and neck. After being made a believer by Innervisions, I feel like listening to Songs is like stumbling into a cave full of treasure—I’m spellbound and I don’t know which piece of gold to stuff into my pocket first.

I don’t think I could talk adequately about this album even if I had another month to listen to it. The depth of the material is amazing. Seriously though, can I have another month? Double albums on their own are tough for me to get through. This one was a doozy.

Klinger: You never fail to surprise, Mendelsohn. I thought we left Innervisions with you still straddling the fence. I did tell you that you’d eventually come crawling back to Stevie, and it appears that I’ve been vindicated. Even so, I find it interesting that you’ve taken the shine that you have to Songs in the Key of Life, since it is, to my way of thinking, a profoundly confounding album. It manages to feature all of Wonder’s most endearing characteristics—intricate and inventive arrangements, the sheer joy of music-making—and all of his most aggravating (mawkishness, a less-than-industrious approach to his lyrics) in one package.

This album is certainly widely hailed, but I suspect that it’s generally loved more in theory than in practice. I hate to sound like a heretic here, because I think that at his best, Stevie Wonder is one of the all-time great pop songwriters. But I also know that of the classic-period Stevie albums, Songs in the Key of Life is the one I reach for the least. I can’t help thinking that it’s like one of those giant novelty sundaes that’s free if you can finish it in one sitting. Delicious, but in the end a bit much.

Mendelsohn: Yeah, Innervisions and I had a bit of a make-up session about a week later. It ended just as quickly, but I’ll always have that weekend. As for Songs, I think your comparison to a giant ice cream sundae is spot on. Right now, it looks deliciously mouth-watering and I think I’ll have no problem getting through it and loving every second of it, but then again, my eyes are normally bigger than my stomach and the same probably applies to my ears.

But like a giant novelty sundae, I’ve been eating around the things I don’t prefer on Songs so I’ve been skipping by the schmaltzy, whip-creamed tracks and focusing on the funk and jazz fusion-driven scoops of goodness. I’m still going to end up with a brain freeze. The song that does it for me is “Black Man”. By far one of my favorite tracks, and for me, the apex of the album. It’s an eight-minute tour of Stevie’s prowess as a musician and a lyricist, but by the time it wraps up after the funk break-down and shout-along, I’m done—just completely overwhelmed.

Klinger: Sure, “Black Man” starts out great—positive message, bubbling funk, nice flourishes throughout. But as those teachers go on hectoring those poor students (which, by the way, flies in the face of all known pedagogical theories), I can’t help wishing they would just knock it off already.

Look, with just about any double LP there’s an attendant parlor game where people argue what can get cut to make a lean, mean single album. Songs in the Key of Life could almost be gotten down to fighting weight just by cutting tracks off when they start to drag. Do we need three minutes of baby noises on “Isn’t She Lovely”? Those shouting children? The second half of “Ordinary Pain” that sounds like a completely different song? For my money, the only long track that can withstand the epicosity is “As”, which builds perfectly over the course of its seven minutes, thanks in large part to one of the most memorable choruses Stevie Wonder ever wrote (which is seriously freakin’ saying something).

“As” could have/should have been the “Hey Jude” of the 1970s. I suspect that by the time it was finally released as a single some degree of fatigue had set in, which would explain its underwhelming chart showing. But there’s no denying the first two singles from Songs—”I Wish” is certainly one of the most joyous of Stevie’s singles (again, really saying something), and “Sir Duke” is not only a delight, but it also something of a statement of purpose for Wonder. It’s telling that he name-checks Basie, Miller, Armstrong, Ellington, and Fitzgerald over, say, Mingus or Miles. Songs in the Key of Life is a Grand Artistic Statement, meant to demonstrate Wonder’s ability to entertain just about any audience he chooses. Come to think of it, the fact that I’m personally not more entertained is probably my own fault.

Mendelsohn: Yes, it is your fault but the fact that I’m mostly entertained is saying something, especially due to the wide breadth of material. But even then, I’m not interested in cutting anything out of this double album. Song in the Key of Life seems like a rare example of a cohesive whole. I may not like the schmaltzy numbers just like I’d prefer not to have Butterfinger pieces in my sundae but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the quality of both Stevie Wonder’s song writing, or that crispity, crunchity peanut buttery goodness.

Of all the double albums we’ve talk about thus far, this is the only one that I don’t feel is a third filler, crying babies or not. But I can see where this may cause some issues. “As” is a good example. I think the reason it never made “Hey Jude” status might have more to do with the lackluster opening than anything else. As soon as the chorus hits, all is forgiven, but at times, Stevie seems to be vacillating between pure genius and only-slightly-inspired mediocrity—sometimes within the same song.

Klinger: Wait, did I just hear you say that you wouldn’t cut any tracks out of this record? Not even the fusion-ish instrumental “Contusion”, which features the smooth guitar stylings of future “Maniac” Michael Sembello? Not even the thrice-titled but still maddeningly gloopy “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing”? I’ve never known you to be such a patient man, Mendelsohn. Who’s gotten to you?

Mendelsohn: Say what? I love “Contusion”, it reminds me of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and I wouldn’t dream of cutting “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing”–mind you, I’ve never listened to it all the way through. The truth is, I don’t feel strongly enough about Stevie Wonder to want him to cut tunes to create a better record. Most of his songs sound the same to me so advocating the exclusion of any of them might be a bit unfair. I know, I haven’t necessarily been forthright with you but Stevie and I, you know, it’s complicated.

Klinger: Let me see if I’ve got this straight—you’re a nut for Songs in the Key of Life because you’re on the fence about Stevie Wonder. I’m on the fence about Songs in the Key of Life because I’m a nut for Stevie Wonder.

Mendelsohn: Nuts is a strong word, Klinger. Can we just call it rationally-impaired and move on? I like Stevie Wonder. Songs in the Key of Life—I liked it. There was nothing about this album I didn’t like but maybe you mistook my unusual effusiveness over this album for something more. It’s true, I am blown away by this record. But like an explorer who stumbles into an ancient treasure trove deep within the jungle, I’m now stuck with the impossible task of trying to cart all of this gold back to civilization. Maybe it would be a better idea for me just to stuff a couple of pieces of treasure in my pocket and get out before a giant boulder crushes me or the locals find me and have me for dinner. And not the nice “welcome to our village, please feast with us” dinner, but the “we’re going to boil you alive and eat you for dinner” dinner.

Klinger: Fair enough. Stevie has certainly left enough lying around here for everyone to grab what they want. I’m just going to sneak a little extra “Ebony Eyes” in my jacket and we’ll move on.