Stevie Wonder: A Time to Love

Justin Cober-Lake

If you care about being cool, walk away now. We won't miss you.

Stevie Wonder

A Time to Love

Label: Motown
US Release Date: 2005-10-18
UK Release Date: 2005-10-17
Amazon affiliate

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.