Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life

Stevie Wonder
Songs in the Key of Life

I sat in my living room for three nights after September 11th, transfixed by the horrific images that played out before me on the television again and again but sadly unable to tear myself away. My wife, her eyes still red and raw from crying, had pulled herself away two days prior and gently asked me to do the same as she shuffled from one end of our little apartment to the other in an effort to keep herself occupied. Finally, after 72 hours filled with the painful reminders of our fallen world I reached for the remote control and turned the television off.

As a musician, critic, and avid collector, I turned to my CDs and tried to find solace in the reverent poetic tones of Joni Mitchell, the joyously youthful optimism of the Beatles, and the brotherly matter-of-factness of Bob Dylan. While my dear friends gave it their best, comfort was hard to come by. I didn’t want escape; I craved release.

After a week I was drawn back to the television for what was perhaps one of the most poignant moments of remembrance in those delicate days after the 11th. Flipping on our television, my wife and I were greeted by the image of Stevie Wonder seated at a keyboard and flanked by the members of Take 6. “When you say that you kill in the name of God or in the name of Allah, you are truly cursing God, for that is not of God,” he quietly stated. “When you say that you hate in the name of God or Allah, you are lying to God, for that is not of our Father. Let us pray that we see the light. God’s Will is to give the world love.” And then came the opening lines of “Love’s in Need of Love Today”.

Good morn or evening friends
Here’s your friendly announcer
I have serious news to pass on to everybody
What I’m about to say
Could mean the world’s disaster
Could change your joy and laughter to tears and pain

It’s that love’s in need of love today
Don’t delay send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ round breaking many hearts
Stop it please before it’s gone too far

There they were, the words I had been looking for and somehow had passed over countless times in that week. I rediscovered Songs in the Key of Life that night, an album that up to that evening had occupied a quiet corner in my collection.

Released almost exactly 25 years prior, Songs didn’t win the critical and commercial praise of its predecessors Talking Book and Innervisions. A double LP release never ceases to raise the eyebrow of a critic, often begging questions of artistic indulgence and pretentiousness. Even the Beatles couldn’t escape that one with their eponymous “White Album” and neither could Stevie Wonder.

The album moves in acts, following thematic lines that often tenuously connect on the whims of its creator. Wonder boldly shares his adamant sense of faith and spiritual devotion with the album’s opening one-two punch of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Have a Talk of God”. The gentle intensity of these tracks offers a sharp contrast to the harsher realities of life depicted in “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise”. But this first act ends on a jubilant note of love’s first blush with the bouncy shuffle of “Ebony Eyes”.

The second act of Songs opens with a renewed sense of optimism found in the cries and laughs of Wonder’s baby daughter on “Isn’t She Lovely” and in the lyrics of “Joy Inside My Tears”. It seems that innocence — and the promise of the future it carries with it — is the antidote for the perils of modernity. With this promise, however, also comes the responsibility of history, as depicted in multi-ethnic history lesson of “Black Man”. And as the centerpiece of this second act (and as the album as a whole), “As” is Wonder’s bold declaration of the endless nature of true love.

The majority of the tracks on Songs in the Key of Life are expansive and lushly layered affairs, carefully crafted around Wonder’s lyrics. He is unafraid to carry out the occasional gospel-like refrain to boundless ends while the listener can’t help but be swept up in these moments. Meanwhile, Wonder’s voice is as powerful as his instrumental prowess, moving from a shout to a whisper with authority and ease, capturing raw emotion and framing gentle subtleties in ways that many artists have attempted to emulate but have never quite captured.

In the end, Songs in the Key of Life is the sprawling vision of a man whose sight has been rendered infinite by the power of love and faith. Sculpted from Wonder’s unique amalgam of jazz, pop and R&B, it is a bold effort that flirts with genius. In terms of Wonder’s career, it stands as the pinnacle of his prolific output. And, as the cliché goes, it was afflicted with the curse of being decades before its time. Yet like any true work of art its value and impact transcends the circumstances of its own creation and the intent of its creator to be blessed with an ability to find a constant tenor in any given time of need.