Warning! This is a longer review which picks up on just how many artists decide that Stevie is the man to sample.
Last week I took a look at Innervisions by Stevie, this week we’ve stepped ahead three years to 1976. Stevie now has a child, survived a car crash that left him comatose, and went on to produce this, his 18th studio album; at the age of 26. I am a little jealous of his ability to sort his life out.
Songs in the Key of Life comprises two vinyls with an A and B side each, with an EP included. There’s a lot to get through here; Strap in folks, this is Stevie’s magnum opus. Stevie is just in his element here, comparing with the slightly more cynical Innervisions; this is the spiritual Stevie Wonder we know now.
Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand; with an equal opportunity for all to sing, dance and clap their hands. But just because a record has a groove don’t make it in the groove; but you can tell right away at letter A, when the people start to move…
God he reviews his own album better than anyone else.
Taking the album as would have originally been broken up, we start with part 1 and Love’s In Need of Love Today, a semi gospel style opening and Stevie takes the stage, just him by himself. It’s a pleasant message, to invest love in the concept of love and it’s the opening of a nice solid Stevie ballad. He continues with Have a talk with God, a more funky, short, simple-messaged piece; get yourself in the church! These tracks are good and already showcase a good talent for what we know Stevie can do.
Village Ghetto Land, for me, is brilliant. It uses synths to imitate a stately classical dance and over this he lays the quite depressing lyrics about impoverished life in the ghetto and this is just such a good juxtaposition and a great parody. In this album Stevie is a lot less critical of race relations than he was in Innervisions but the feeling is present here, and it’s an incredibly witty attack.
Contusion is a pure instrumental piece that shows the increasingly popular synth. I really like the jazz-funk, almost semi sci-fi feel. It’s very ahead of it’s time and for me, so brilliant. This being said, it’s time to close part 1. Sir Duke is the last track of this part and this is a track that goes down in history; I borrowed lyrics for it above to open the review. It’s Stevie’s love letter to the old blues and jazz artists that set the ground for all of Stevie’s work and arguably all modern music. It’s catchy, it’s well known and real brilliant end to part 1.
Part 2 starts with I wish, real funk with that bouncing bass line with such a catchy chorus and the punchy brass backing. Those who remember Will Smith’s Wild Wild West should also see that this is the classic original! It’s immediately gone for Knocks Me Off My Feet, a classic Stevie ballad with the piano and easy going drum beat. This solid track is followed with the synth heavy Pastime Paradise recognisable to some as the sample track for Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, this is a track with a light reggae feel and running bass lines that are Stevie’s answer to Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles. Really solid setup and unsurprising it’s been used so much.
Summer Soft goes back to the ballad category with such a brilliant chorus, the moog synth just dances around Stevie’s long expressive crooning. This is backed by a really strong bass line and the signature funky rhythms and is one of the tracks really worth a quick dive in and listen to. Part 2 closes with Ordinary Pain another lower tempo ballad, with Stevie bemoaning the loss of a relationship. Of course with Stevie nothing is boring; the song picks up to a much funkier feel and gives the aforementioned partner a chance to respond. She has the last word and closes part 2 on a much sassier tone.
Part 3 opens with the sound of a baby crying and a chord sequence now famous for just expressing complete adoration. Isn’t She Lovely has Stevie fawning over his new daughter with every vocal, every note and every rhythm soaked with the complete devotion to a child. The whole track has a lot of Stevie’s harmonica backing the simple message as we listen to the true amazement a parent has for a child. This is a real treat and an marvellous start to part 3. Joy Inside My Tears follows this with a much slower and more simplistic feel. It’s a track that is really motivated by a simple expression and it’s just worth mellowing out to and pondering over the lyrics.
Black Man brings the very quick close to part 3 and my God that bass line. Since Innervisions Stevie’s political commentary features more rarely in his songs but this is his chance to really just enforce the achievements by all races – simple melody, simple theme; “this world was made for all men.” The track closes with teachers and students chanting the achievements of different people with different racial backgrounds. It’s absorbing and over the top of this, an almost Electro sounding voice sings. The fade from part 3 is particularly appropriate, it implies the list goes on forever.
So of the main album, we reach part 4 with Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing. It’s a simple message in Zulu, Spanish and English and it just again allows for some Stevie charm – just sing and enjoy music. Then he jumps up the octave and belts the message simply and shows off his huge vocal range – Brilliant.
If It’s Magic is different again, with Stevie choosing this time to sing against a harp, minimalist and quite lovely. Then… We’re into As, ever sampled, ever covered, completely iconic and with that iconic confidence that emanates from this music. This is another solid, timeless classic of music and one of the tracks that will be played forever. So part 4 closes with Another Star, a latin themed, jazzier number featuring quick bongos. The song lasts 8 and half minutes and ends with a jazzy flute solo – so different again and so worth it. Stevie just has endless variation.
Closing us down we have the EP section and our opening number Saturn. The planet is painted as a complete Utopia in this slightly sci-fi song. It’s really just a lovely number with a chorus that is amazing – really, really, give this one a listen!
This is followed by Ebony Eyes, this has a wonderful lounge feel with synth-modified backing vocals and a great chord structure. This is another gem like Saturn that I cannot understand how these songs are even relegated to the afterthought of an EP. All Day Sucker follows here and Oh! That funk climaxes here. This track is a perfect combination of Stevie’s vocals, deep basslines, a solid beat and the never overused synth.
And finally, we close with Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call) where the mood slows and Stevie plays us out with his harmonica. It’s the perfect pitch down with no vocals necessary, just an easy going Au Revoir and perfect as a close, almost a goodbye.
This album is phenomenal and should be in every library, mp3 player or streaming service owned by anyone. It is fittingly called Stevie’s magnum opus and I think it’s a work of genius that I can’t praise highly enough – hell – I had to discuss the whole thing.
Is this album for you?
This is an album that if you have the time to sit down and truly listen, you must. If you haven’t heard it, you must and although it may not be completely your style, there is a level of respect that should be awarded to such a talented and amazing musician as Stevie Wonder.
- Writing: 10/10
- Performance: 10/10
- Style: 10/10