On my second listen to A Time to Love, I finally figured out what it is that makes Stevie Wonder’s music so successful (if you thought you were going to get a standard introduction here, look elsewhere; you probably don’t need me to tell you how Wonder started off as a prodigy, turned in a string of sensational albums in the ’70s, did some AM radio in the ’80s and hasn’t released a new album in 10 years): he’s completely honest. Maybe I’m naive and falling for a character, but it strikes me emphatically that Stevie presents one of the most direct visions of any artist out there, and it’s that element of his music that both challenges and rewards his listeners.
Go to nearly any period of Stevie’s career, and you’ll find tracks tempting you (sometimes successfully) to call them schmaltz. Hits like “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” could easily be turned into pure cheese, but Wonder makes them work. With “For Once in My Life”, he turns in the most effective version of a trite, often-covered song. Wonder’s secret is implicit in his performance: he believes what he sings. He doesn’t perform for the song — he sings to express himself. So much so that even writing can degenerate into borderline schmaltz.
If you want to know who that self is, you’re given a clue on the new album’s opener, “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved”. Doug E. Fresh and Kim Burrell help out, but Wonder brings an on-the-one funk and an attitude that announces that this one is a Stevie album (not a “return to form” or anything like that — just Stevie busting out). The song’s urgency is driven by its lyrics, its vocal performance, and its steady percussion. Whether it’s a call to political activism or existential fulfillment, “If Your Love” prods your heart as quickly as gets your head tapping.
That adamant delivery of both desire and proclamation allows the next track “Sweetest Somebody I Know” to develop as a gorgeous late-life relationship ode played over a smooth groove. The initial intensity of the album keeps this track from drifting off; “If Your Love” calls you to live, and “Sweetest Somebody” uses that call as a frame for its easy romantic offering. This track comes at the end of a journey, and if old relationships don’t seem passionate, it’s only because you’re missing the context in which they live.
Wonder works those kinds of shifts throughout A Time to Love. At the album’s finest moments, the tensions and juxtapositions develop a bigger vision. Stevie might be arguing something as simple as “The world is rough so let’s love”, but he’s doing it better than anyone else, and, heck, we all need to be reminded of that at times. The snapshots within this bigger picture make for some pointed moments, such as the pleading of adulterers in “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby”.
At the album’s weakest moments, Wonder’s strong funk only makes his croons sound silly. “Passionate Raindrops” suffers from a bad title, cloying music, and troubling personification. “Shelter in the Rain” sounds too much like the post-Katrina number it is; as a too-direct appeal in an obvious moment of crisis, it’s too transparent to be fully effective.
However, Wonder’s delivery never stumbles. His earnestness carries even the least successful of his numbers (except “Raindrops” and probably “Positivity”) by being so convincing. With his emotions exposed, surrounded but not aided by his music’s ornamentation, Wonder can create directs links to meaning and feeling in his world (or at least as direct as we could get). Wonder’s music, whether artistically well-done, almost always comes across as something vital.
Even in our current era of delicious post-irony, heartfelt statements tend to be derided as aesthetically base or emotionally puerile. Wonder doesn’t care. He’s going to express what’s on his mind and his heart, and his going to give it directly to you to decide what to do with it. If you reject it, it doesn’t mean you’re too resistant or aloof for your own good. It’s just something you might want to keep in mind.