I love Stevie Wonder, and he’s become sort of the mascot of the blog, so I wasn’t surprised that Alex gave me a Stevie album this week. What did surprise me was how… un-Stevie it is (and that isn’t necessarily bad). Let me explain.
Before we start, some context (buckle up, kids). Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants is based on a pretty surreal book called The Secret Life of Plants and accompanying documentary. This book, in the simplest of terms, posits – with experiments – that plants have emotions. Are you still with me? If you’re thinking, ‘wow, that’s weird’, then a) it was the 70s, and b) that’s where we are with this album right about now.
It is a clear concept album. Like Pink Floyd last week, Journey Through has tracks that lead seamlessly and smoothly into each other, and throughout there is a continuing theme of jubilation over nature and digitised sound – this is the second ever album recorded digitally, and using digital sound in every track. These ideas actually meld really well. Nature’s importance, with the added help of technology.
The album starts with Earth’s Creation, a deep throb of synth that reminds me of the opening bars of Jamiroquai’s Deeper Underground. It gets into your skin with bass notes and grandiose syntg, and brings about the opening of the album with spectacle and majesty, and then runs into the quainter, chintzier The First Garden. If you were expecting Stevie’s vocals by now, you’re sadly mistaken. In fact, the first three tracks are instrumentals. The focus here seems to be atmosphere creation, rather than all out Stevie melody-making. It makes sense; the tracks were used for the documentary based on the book. And, surprisingly, I didn’t feel like I’d lost any sense of Stevie without his vocals.
The classic sounds are there – piano, the synthesised strings, the trumpet – and Stevie’s overriding sense of the whole. The calm, lulling sensations of the opening tracks are not accidental. The three tracks have similarities, but are distinguished with subtleties (for example, Voyage to India uses traditional Indian instruments to create a Delhi vibe), and yes, oddly, you do feel like you’re on a journey, moving gracefully through Eden, then into the forests of India, and onwards.
In places, this definitely feels experimental. Venus’ Flytrap and the Bug has an almost swing style, interposed with scatting and deep spoken word and Louisiana brass – and it’s Weeeeeeird. It finishes with Stevie’s young child talking about a Venus flytrap. Ai No Sono, that comes after, sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear on a preset Yamaha keyboard when you’re browsing through the pre-recorded song selection – heavy synth that sounds so fake it’s endearing – and then it moves into a childrens’ choir, singing in Japanese, I think? It’s strange, but somehow, it works. Seasons is a bedtime story, spoken over ghostly wind, and finally becoming a piano-based instrumental.
When you do get Stevie’s unmistakable caramel voice, he sings with style and soul, even though the lyrics at some points are incredibly odd, almost forced. He captures the mystery of nature at some times, and at others, it’s a stretch. Where it’s good, it’s really, really good. Black Orchid is a hidden gem of a track that oozes Stevie:
A touch of love in fear of hate
A rushing wind that’s asked to wait
For the promises of rain
A pearl of wisdom entrapped by poverty
It’s a love song at its core, a ballad with dancing basslines and skillful piano, with the central conceit of the orchid to express rarity and perfection. Here is where the nature aspect really hits with me – not rushed, not forced – instead, a great metaphor, used well. And, of course, Stevie’s voice is easy and heartfelt as always.
Tree is probably my favourite instrumental, here. There’s delicate piano, flitting over high octaves like bird song, with unobtrusive synth and a gentle pulsing bassline. The whole thing crescendos, and then falls back, and then again, and then falls back, each time adding some new and interesting digital sound, all backed up by Stevie’s precise piano. It links wonderfully into the Finale, that ends much as we began, with some syncopation and weird synth, and deep, thunderous tones.
I’m not going to go through every track, like I have in previous reviews. The album doesn’t work like that. It’s the kind of album that dips and soars. You could put it on beneath a chill pool party, or as music to cook to on a hot summer’s day, and feel good about the whole thing. It has a feel, rather than anything I can attempt to pick apart in isolation.
Is This Album For You?
Don’t come here looking for classic Stevie. That isn’t what you’re getting. What you’re getting is Stevie having the opportunity to experiment, to elaborate, and to flesh out a concept rather than make you move. In some ways, it’s very Stevie, and in others, not at all.
This is one of those albums that you listen to in its entirety, without shuffle on, each track at a time, to get the full experience. If you’re looking for a funky chill-out album, I’d recommend this in a heartbeat. Again, if you’re looking for sing-a-longs, this isn’t the place. All that said, I heartily enjoyed this album as a piece of artwork and an experience.