Counterbalance No. 111: Stevie Wonder’s ‘Talking Book’

Stevie Wonder
Talking Book

Mendelsohn: Well, Klinger, it looks as if we’ve come to the end of our time with Stevie Wonder. Talking Book marks the beginning of Wonder’s incredible run from 1972 to 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life, which we talked about last year shortly after spending some time with 1973’s Innervisions. In the middle of the run was 1974’s Fulfullingness’ First Finale, but since that’s at number 932 on the Great List, I am hoping we will have designed robots to have these discussions for us by then. The task at hand, however, remains Talking Book, the album that started Wonder’s move away from Motown and meteoric rise to the top of the charts as well as mounting critical acclaim and wider acceptance among rock audiences.

As you know, I have a complicated relationship with Wonder and his music. With Talking Book, I’m enthralled by the dirty, wide-open funk of “Maybe Your Baby”, and the well-known punch of “Superstition”, but the rest of the record pushes the line of balladry too far for my taste and I’m left wanting a more mature, diversified Wonder, the likes of which would eventually show up on Innervisions and the sprawling Songs in the Key of Life.

What’s your take, Klinger? Does it make sense for us to be talking about Talking Book at this juncture in the Great List?

Klinger: It always makes sense to talk about Stevie Wonder, especially when it comes to Talking Book, which comes along at a pivotal moment in Wonder’s career. Stevie had just turned 21, so he gained access to the million-dollar trust fund that was set up in his name when the hits first started coming. Instead of sinking his money into a solid-gold bathtub like I would have, he wisely invested back into his career, expanding his capacities with new-fangled synthesizer technology. Still, I’m not sure what you’re talking about when you say there’s too much balladry. Yes, the wispier side of Stevie is here—it’s always here somewhere—but Talking Book is still an album with some real meat on its bones. By my count, only three tracks here have that softish quality to them (“You and I”, “Blame It on the Sun”, and “Looking for Another Pure Love”), and it’s true that those three do tend to make me shift around in my seat. Every other song here is built around a solid, albeit subtle, groove.

But because so many folks dig into a Stevie Wonder album for the tougher numbers, they tend to miss out on some hidden gems. If I may direct your attention to “Big Brother”, which for some reason wasn’t a hit single. Wonder plays a clavinet part that sounds for all the world like fingerpicking guitar and summons up the spirit of, I don’t know, acoustic Zeppelin? At least the Faces. So much genius. I’ll forgive him any spacey meanderings and gloopy ballads just on the strength of tracks like “Big Brother”. Listen to it again, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: I don’t know. Maybe “balladry” was a poor word choice. Wispy is a good characterization. There is too much wispiness going on in Talking Book. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”? Wispy. “You and I (We Can Conquer the World)”? Wispy. “You’ve Got It Bad Girl”? Sort of wispy. “Blame It on the Sun”? Wispy. “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love”? Wispy. “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”? Super wispy. By my count, wispy dominates this album by a count of 6-4. Too much wisp, Klinger. The only thing counteracting the overabundance of wispyliciousocity are the excellent “Superstition” and “Maybe Your Baby”, the forgettable “Tuesday Heartbreak”, and, of course, “Big Brother”.

Klinger: All right, well at least you’re on board with “Big Brother”. Now please stop saying the word “wispy”.

Mendelsohn: OK, I was going to save “Big Brother” for later on because it was the only song on this album I found to be really intriguing, but we might as well dive right in. On the surface, it’s a groovy tune with ear-catching hooks coming out of every orifice. In that regard, yes, it should have been a chart-topping single. The lyrical message, however, is a direct indictment of the government—a humorous and deeply despairing portrayal of the real Big Brother. I’m guessing the record executives in charge at the time probably balked at the suggestion of releasing “Big Brother” to a wider audience. As far as social commentary goes, “Big Brother” is probably Wonder’s greatest achievement. He would spend a little more time exploring that avenue on Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, but he never comes close to the succinct, scathing, and supremely catchy three-minute blast of righteous pop-driven indignation that is “Big Brother”.

And yes, acoustic Led Zeppelin is dead on. Let’s not bring Rod Stewart into this discussion, even tangentially. I don’t care how cool he used to be.

Klinger: Besides, I think you’re being entirely too rigid in your binary “funk/ballad” dichotomy. Yes, “I Believe” starts out with wind chimes and big soft chords, but if you’re not swept away the minute the rubber of that chorus hits the road of your brain, then I just don’t know what to tell you. Not to mention the fact that bit at the end when the whole bottom drops out of the song and we have ourselves a little fatback jamboree to take us out of the album.

And consider that many of these songs were collaborations with Syreeta, the woman he was in the process of divorcing (allegedly so he could go with Gloria Barley, whose voice graces the first verse of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”), and you’ve got a sort of precursor to relationship confessionals like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

Anyway, if there’s one thing we should have learned by now, it’s that Stevie Wonder albums are never going to be the funktaculars you want them to be. So you’ve just got to open your heart, man. Sure, there may have been a time in my life when I agreed with you about “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”—a bleak, dark, awful time when no amount of warmth or sincerity or simple human decency could have penetrated my cold hard robot heart. Luckily I’ve softened in my old age and I can hear that song for the expression of pure joy and beauty that it is (even if it was once used in an orange juice commercial). Why can’t you open your heart to the sweet sweetness of sweet Stevie? Why, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: It’s complicated, Klinger. But mostly, Stevie and I just can’t seem to get on the same page. Sometimes, when you are in a relationship, you have to make a couple demands, and if those demands aren’t met, well, then, maybe the relationship wasn’t meant to be. In this case, I demand more funktaculars. But Stevie said, “I’ll give you ‘Superstition’ and ‘Maybe Your Baby’. The rest of my funk I will hide away and make you search it out.” And then I’ll get pissed and sulk a little bit but in the end, I’ll probably say, “Fine, Stevie, have it your way. Go ahead and play ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’ a couple more times; maybe it will grow on me.” And eventually, with the passage of time, I too will come to appreciate the more nuanced aspects of this record. But not today.

I would also like to point out that, while we are just outside of the Top 100, Talking Book is the third Stevie Wonder album we’ve talked about, and that puts him in some heady company with several high-profile names to have three or more records in or around the Top 100. That list, in its entirety, includes the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, and now Stevie Wonder. Why doesn’t Wonder’s name get brought up more often when we are talking about the greatest rock artists of all time?

Klinger: Are you trying to hoist me with my own petard, Mendelsohn? Because that’s exactly what you’re about to do here. Fine. The reason, I’m guessing, that we don’t talk more about Stevie Wonder is because he has a tendency toward pop balladry that can be a tad gloopy and perhaps even a bit wispy. Stupid petards. I think a lot of that is down to certain rockist tendencies within the critical community, if you accept that the funk is the R&B analog to the rock. (Rock : Pop :: Funk : R&B.) Also “I Just Called to Say I Love You”.

And that’s all kind of a shame, because this phase of Stevie Wonder’s career is groundbreaking in ways that go well beyond his songwriting. Wonder was introducing electronic elements into the mainstream that were relatively few and far between at that time, thanks in part to his partnership with British synth maestros Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, a.k.a. Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Wonder’s use of synthesizers went well beyond spacy bleeps and bloops—he made them sound organic, like “real” instruments. As you are an aficionado of electronic music and so forth, Mendelsohn, I should think that might resonate with you.

Mendelsohn: Honestly, I’d never thought about it but that might explain why I find myself inexplicably drawn to Wonder’s music despite my complaints to the contrary. On the flip side, I’m completely desensitized by years and years of electronic music, so much so that I don’t even bat a lash when somebody busts out a synth. Wonder’s ability to disguise the synth sounds is probably more of a detriment, for me at least, as I would probably sit up and take more notice if he tossed in a couple bleeps and bloops. But that’s not to say that I don’t fully appreciate Wonder’s contribution to the world of music, be it with his funktaculars, his wispy ballads, or his forward-thinking use of electronic instruments.