Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (revisiting)

Songs in the Key of Life, one of the best albums of 1976. This double album was all over the radio and was perhaps the pinnacle of Stevie Wonder’s musical output. Consider, this was Wonder’s 18th album, and he was only 26 years old. Amazing!

The early 1970s had been a richly creative period for Wonder. He not only topped the charts, but his music, blending pop, jazz, funk and R&B, expanded the contemporary soundscape, in much the way Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles did before him.

Wonder worked over two years on this project, recording what was said to be over two hundred songs. Songs in the Key of Life consisted of two LPs and an EP (containing four additional songs). The album spent 13 weeks atop the Billboard chart, and has sold over five million units.

His three previous albums Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale were huge sellers and influential on music of the period. Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale won Grammy Albums of the Year.

Songs in the Key of Life was awarded four Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Producer of the Year.

I have to admit, the success of this album, and the constant airplay of its top singles rather put me off at the time. That’s as far as I got with the album. Now, I really liked “Superstition,” “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” and several other songs from his past albums. The funky grooves were awesome. It was his pop songs that were harder for me to appreciate. Previous chart hits like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “My Cherie Amour” are fine songs, very successful and lasting for their appeal. I’m just not a fan of that side of Stevie Wonder, however it is quite amazing that he was able to write such mature, romantic songs at a young age.

My first impression of Songs in the Key of Life hit me like Stevie Wonder had sold out as I heard these songs in my doctor’s office and my parents’ AM radio That was my general opinion and I missed the boat.

Wonder mixes different music genres in the first few songs so you know this is no ordinary album. I like how the songs slightly overlap to really emphasize the swift change in musical styles. These are not simple love songs, Wonder goes deep into spiritual, societal and contemporary themes. Wonder had broken free of the commercial pressures to churn out snappy and repetitious material, his early 1970s success with funkier and grittier music earned him a massive contract with his record company, Motown, which included the artistic control he sought. Simply put, I found Wonder’s music more intriguing and satisfying when he pushed the boundaries and veered away from the slick, commercial songs of his greatest success. Songs in the Key of Life had enough great material to satisfy all of his fans.

The album

“Love’s in Need of Love Today” 7:06 Wonder chooses a long, mid-tempo ballad to open the set. It’s a great message song with a wonderful vocal arrangement. For soulful and a bit meandering, which adds to the charm. An interesting choice as an opener.

“Have a Talk With God” Wonder, Calvin Hardaway 2:42 A slow, spacey funk groove. A great bass line drives this song.

“Village Ghetto Land” Wonder, Gary Byrd 3:25 A pseudo string quartet, very stately in counterpoint to the song’s gritty urban life lyrics.

“Contusion” (instrumental) 3:46 This is jazz-fusion song, like Weather Report or Jeff Beck, with funky electric guitar and electric piano playing off each other.

“Sir Duke” 3:52 One of the grand hit singles from the album, topping several charts. A pop-R&B slice of delight, it’s smooth, funky and a sing-a-long. The time signature changes are abrupt but make this song swing.

“I Wish” 4:12 Another huge hit, this funky, gliding tune instantly gets your mojo going. A super funky bass line drives this danceable track. This one also topped several charts and was recognized with a Grammy for the vocal performance.

“Knocks Me Off My Feet” 3:36 A mid-tempo dance song, romantic and thoughtful, adult contemporary, a song for those who can fully appreciate matters of the heart. It wasn’t a single, but still got airplay.

“Pastime Paradise” 3:27 This is a very serious look at life, real vs spiritual. The rhythms are complex for this intriguing song.

“Summer Soft” 4:14 More of a typical love song, it has an uptempo big band feel when it kicks into a higher gear.

“Ordinary Pain” 6:16 Another mid-tempo, love song. Even Wonder’s album tracks contain enough melodic hooks to garner attention for repeated listens. The song shifts gears into an almost completely different, funky song. How does he do this?

“Isn’t She Lovely” 6:34 The single that wasn’t a single. Not released as a single, but a very popular song, one of the most recognizable Wonder songs. It was played so much that I got tired of the song. Written about his newborn daughter.

“Joy Inside My Tears” 6:30 A slow, ballad with some cool musical hooks. Hardly a filler track, most artists would love to have this musical sensibility.

“Black Man” Wonder, Byrd 8:27 A heavier funk groove, and more serious message about Black consciousness. The longest song on the set, the music is a jazz-funk groove that repeats with funkier elements.

“Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” (translation by Thoko Mdalose Hall, Raymond Maldonado) 3:48 An upbeat, soaring song that has a bit of an Island vibe.

“If It’s Magic” 3:12 A quiet ballad played solo by Wonder with a keyboard-harp sound.

“As” 7:08 Another single, instantly recognizable, with a chorus that kicks and great accompaniment vocal work. Endless, unconditional love is the theme. The song rocks with the participation of Nathan West, Dean Parks and Herbie Hancock.

“Another Star” 8:28 The unmistakable George Benson adds guitar and vocals to this upbeat, funky song that has a distinct Latin feel. The album began with a mellow, tentative song, it ends with a rocking, danceable song.

A Something’s Extra EP of bonus tracks

“Saturn” Wonder, Michael Sembello 4:54 One of the leftovers, but not a bad song, there are moments that lift this song.

“Ebony Eyes” 4:11 A funky, playful song. Not great, but easy on the ears.

“All Day Sucker” 5:06 A funky, syncopated rhythm.

“Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” (instrumental) 3:55 Slow, plodding tune. An easy-going fade-out to a marvelous album.


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