Thursday, January 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Songs in the Key of Life" by Stevie Wonder

Well, this is it. Having already spoken about Blonde on Blonde, The White Album and London Calling, there was really only one stone-cold classic double album left for me to take on. And it's not as if I've ignored it: I actually drew up a tentative tracklist fully two years ago but have left it sitting there, to age, I suppose. I've been waiting for 'the right moment' to tackle it, I suppose. But I think that moment's arrived.

What's particularly daunting about discussing Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life is not merely its massive size, both as a huge critical and commercial success and also as a 100+ minute epic flowing across two full-length records and even a third 7" 'ep'. It's not even the hugeness of the project, two years in the making and allegedly featuring a cast of hundreds, released to enormous expectation after a string of four classic albums that presented Stevie Wonder as perhaps the single most gifted musician of his generation. The challenge, in fact, is the huge scale of the accomplishment of the album. Not all of the 21 songs on this album are classics, and it's certainly as worthy of a good trim as any other double out there. But as it's effectively five sides' worth of music, concentrating Songs in the Key of Life to an efficient 45 minutes requires binning fully 60% of one of popular music's greatest achievements. Loving Stevie Wonder as much as I do, that's a tall order, and one that threatens to derail my entire project: what I'm about to cut off this album, collated and presented as its own entity, would still kick the ass of 95% of popular music.

Yes, Songs in the Key of Life is that good, make no mistake about it. I'm not given to hyperbole, but in this particular case there's no real avoiding it. I would probably say that I consider 19 of the 21 songs on this album to be 'good': there's only two that I tend to skip over. The two main criticisms that can be gently placed on the shoulders of this album are, however, a useful start for the process of shrinking this colossal work down to a more manageable size, so it's useful to take a minute to consider them:

First is the quality of the lyrics. You simply can't love Stevie Wonder if your cynicism is so inbuilt that mawkish sentimentality or misty-eyed utopianism, no matter how masterfully presented, makes you gag: for someone lacking the sense of sight, he has a wide-eyed optimism and a wide-eyed sense of wonder about the world around him (I was never going to make it through that sentence without some kind of pun). The ability to tap proudly into this particular emotional resource is much of what makes Wonder unique, but when unchecked it can become cloying, and at times his exuberance does embarrass. In effect, Stevie Wonder lyrics come in three varieties: insightful and memorable, rather weak but carried with a disarming vocal sincerity or else buried beneath brilliant music, and lastly too tacky or embarrassing to be redeemed. Songs in the third group provide me with an obvious starting point.

The second is the length of the tracks. Now, Stevie can cook up an amazing groove, both alone in a studio overdubbing all the instruments or leading a crack band of session players and celebrity 'special guests'. To this end, then, certain songs are given the opportunity to stretch out a little bit. But a good number of these songs drag on for no discernible reason, and it frankly is to the detriment of the album as a whole. While a good number of these songs do exist as truncated 'radio edits', I've avoided the temptation to resort to those, meaning that a track will go on my single-length intact or not at all. This has allowed me to make some exclusions here and there that might strike some as sacrilege. But let's be honest: that was bound to happen no matter what I did.

Lacking sight but possessing vision few can rival, Stevie Wonder's journey is one of popular music's most amazing. From 'Fingerprints' to 'I Just Called to Say I Love You' (to say nothing of the almost thirty years since) is a pretty remarkable tale, from youthful exuberance to middle-aged smarminess. One horrid song does not negate all his greatness, though, and not even a million 'I Just Called To Say I Love You's can dent the impact of this musical milestone. Years before that horror, Wonder discovered as Dylan had before him that critical response to a double album can range from the absolute heights of praise to the bitter depths of panning - in Stevie's case back to back as he followed up this critical-darling with the almost-universally-panned Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. The day may come when I attempt to tackle that particular beast. But at the moment, let's take a rest for a while at the absolute summit of Stevie Wonder's artistry, and enjoy the view from this lofty vantage, a view so beautiful only someone without the capacity for sight could have conceived of it.

Songs in the Key of Life

Side one
  1. Sir Duke (3:54)
  2. Pastime Paradise (3:28)
  3. Knocks Me Off My Feet (3:36)
  4. Summer Soft (4:14)
  5. Isn't She Lovely (6:34)
Side two
  1. I Wish (4:12)
  2. Have a Talk with God (2:42)
  3. Ebony Eyes (4:09)
  4. Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I am Singing (3:49)
  5. As (7:08)
Love's in Need of Love Today: lose

First track on the album, first 'length' issue. This is a beautiful piece, with a smooth, swaying vibe, a gospel feel, and a sturdy melody designed for lighters held above heads at stadiums. The lyrics are mawkish, but the song's overall mood sells them all the same. So what's the problem? It's just that damned song length. Everything Stevie really needs to say he's already said by the three-minute point of the song, and yet the song carries on in excess of seven minutes, with no real 'Hey Jude'-style buildup either: it merely repeats its chorus innumerable times while Stevie vocally improvises on top. It's trying, and that's too bad, since it's a beautiful piece.

Have a Talk With God: keep (side two, track two)

And no sooner have I said that then we get into the shorted piece on the album, a beguiling little effort that is almost charming in its scope. The religious sentiments are delivered via a dependable but not overly 'catchy' melody, something that seeps into the subconscious only after a few listens. For me, though, what stops traffic here is the amazing musical accompaniment, an almost random juxtaposition of harmonica licks, aquatic synth burbles, bell-like tones and other disparate fragments, arranged over a beat in a way that we in the post-sampling era are able to compute but which must have been amazingly forward-looking for 1976. Hell, 36 years later it still sounds like the future.

This isn't the first track on the double, but it's close enough to still be 'introductory' in an important way. I like the idea of using it early in the album, but I just couldn't make it happen. Instead, it wound up on my side two, as track two.

Village Ghetto Land: lose

These synths, however, sound resolutely mid-seventies. And they're all you get on this track, sheets of new-age chords and elaborate instrumental breaks. I suspect that Stevie was going for a baroque sense of 'drama', juxtaposing bleak scenes from the ghetto with elaborate neo-classical synthesiser accompaniment. But the effect does not fail to be ostentatious, and the main way to get through this dated piece is to ignore the synths completely and focus instead on Wonder's amazingly authoritative and touching vocal performance. Pity that's not enough.

Contusion: lose

In a juxtaposition so extreme that it must have been deliberate, we go from a solo performance of new-age synths redeemed by amazing vocals to dirty improvisational funk played by a full band with no vocals at all. Well, no lead vocals, at least - this os one of the album's two instrumentals, and while I'm tempted to leave my commentary at "instrumental: gone", I should point out that the showy melody line, doubled throughout on guitar and on synth, is technically impressive but not especially loveable. Everyone knows Stevie Wonder has chops to put the entire Chinese food industry on the streets, but that's never been enough: Wonder's best music is always about how he uses that amazing musical prowess as a mainline to human emotional response mechanisms. He can make us cry in sadness, cry in joy, or feel both feelings equally deeply at the same time. This showiness, however, leaves me emotionally cold.

Sir Duke: keep (side one, track one)

And compare it to this. If someone were ever to challenge me to prove to them in four minutes why the advent of recorded sound was one of the greatest advancements in human culture, I'd merely play this song. I'm not sure how a song could be more 'perfect' than this particular one is: the horn 'riff' is catchy and compelling, Wonder's obvious excitement and simple joy is evident every time air passes through his vocal chords, and the breakdowns in the song are enough to reduce even the most emotionless zombie to a giddy little child, caught up in the excitement and simple glee at the power of music, the same feeling that clearly caught up the poor little blind, black kid from Detroit whose childlike love of Duke Ellington (and others) is still vivid all these years later in this touching tribute. That someone can take such joy from music is remarkable, but that he's also able to impart that feeling and expressly give others that same joy is a talent almost unique in the musical world. It's probably Stevie Wonder's single greatest gift.

What is a musical 'statement of purpose'? Well, I'd say it's a single song that, in the scope of an album, sets out the main themes that will be further explored as the album progresses - be those themes musical or lyrical. If you're very lucky, it can do both - and I would argue that this tribute to, and case study in, the joy music can impart is indeed a 'statement of purpose'. And plus it was a number one single. I think it's an obvious opening track. That brass fanfare is exactly what you need to knock the listener off his feet and keep him in one place for an amazing 40 minute ride.

I Wish: keep (side two, track one)

On vinyl, these two monsters were split across different sides of the first disc; it's only in the CD era, and the post-CD download era, that we're able to hear 'Sir Duke' and 'I Wish', two of Wonders' most amazing expressions of joy and two number-one singles, back to back. This particular piece, pop-funk at its finest, is a bit of a different beast to 'Sir Duke', being a reflection on childhood, in particular the various innocuous ways that a poor blind kid managed to get into trouble. Considering how actively Stevie Wonder has always been able to maintain an emotional connection to his pre-fame childhood (something he has always had in common with fellow Motown child star Michael Jackson), this is obviously a subject that hits close to home, and you can tell his conviction when listening. But the voice of innocence is, happily, not couched in a sappy heartstring-pulling midtempo arrangement but sits atop a truly raucous, fun yet 'mature' pop-funk background. A lot of 1970s kids' programming sounded a lot like this, but there is no age at which a person can't feel genuine pleasure listening to this song. If Stevie Wonder had recorded nothing in his entire life except this song and 'Sir Duke', we'd still be writing about him 36 years after the fact.

If you buy this on CD, you'll find 'I Wish' to be one of an amazing five-song stretch of songs that made it to my single-length; fully half the final album. But while four of those are on side one, this is the outlier: my side-opener for side two. Why? Well, 'I Wish' and 'Sir Duke' really are cousins, and they both serve to start each side with a foot on the gas pedal.

Knocks Me Off My Feet: keep (side one, track three)

After three mighty band-led funk tracks in a row, this downtempo piece, recorded entirely solo as a one-man overdub band, is certainly a change of pace. And yet while slow-dance Stevie is often the riskiest, with many songs spilling over the boundary between 'touching' and 'tacky', there's no such thing happening here. This is a touching lyric set to a gorgeous melody, given a gripping vocal performance, and entirely over in three and a half minutes. Again, not to disparage longer pieces, but there's not a single unneeded note here, not a single extraneous second - which is part of what's so amazing about this beautiful track. It could have been an 'American songbook' standard had it been composed a generation or two earlier. And take a minute to marvel at the fact that Wonder performed every note of every instrument here, accompanied only by headphones and a clearly vivid musical imagination.

This is my track three. I explain why in detail below, but I'd like to add that a big ballad like this shouldn't come too early in a set. Track three is about as early as it could realistically come.

Pastime Paradise: keep (side one, track two)

Well, this song belongs to Coolio now, I suppose. Coolio's rap interpolation, called 'Gangsta's Paradise', is every bit the work of genius it's widely considered. And yet the genius of that track is as much as 50% Wonder's, as you can hear by listening to the original, which works a truly suspenseful vibe, a midtempo collision of ringing percussion and icy synth-strings over which, in a stroke of genius, a Christian gospel choir and a Hare Krishna temple sing simultaneously. This song is all tension and no release as it merely builds and build for the duration. All these years later, it's easy to miss Coolio's dramatic inner-city-life recitation, but with Stevie Wonder's stark vocals reading a meaningful list of '-ation' words, a performance somehow simultaneously bleak and optimistic, it's not like there's anything 'lacking' in the original.

Call me a revisionist cheat... I had this as track three, after 'Knocks Me Off My Feet', but the honest truth is that this song's subsequent celebrity made me want to put it back-to-back with 'Sir Duke' in a kind of one-two punch of hit tunes. So it's my track two, a bit of real-life seriousness immediately after the escapism of the opener, 'Sir Duke'.

Summer Soft: keep (side one, track four)

And yes, I'm aware that I've now taken five songs in a row, fully half of my album. They're not quite 'in a row' due to the vinyl split, but I do take four of the five songs on the original's side two. This one is, by far, the least well-known of them, and yet, like 'Have a Talk with God', the song's under-appreciated nature actually endears me to it. As Wonder was spending the 1970s progressing by leaps and bounds year by year (when not almost-dying, another thing he did just a year or two before starting work on this album), there was obviously little chance to step back and reconsider what's come before. And yet that's largely what I love about this song, its free, easy jazzy groove and rise-and-fall dynamics, to say nothing of the sense that the Stevie's keyboard performance is a direct side-product of his beautiful vocals, most reminiscent of his early-1970s formal breakthroughs. Those albums, Music of My Mind and Innervisions, were so magnificent that saying this track sounds like an outtake from those albums is no insult at all but a high compliment indeed. This is wonderful music indeed, a song that ought to be just as famous as any of this album's many highlights.

It's a bit strange that my side one is constructed largely out of Motown's side two, with three consecutive tracks remaining consecutive here. At least my decision to push 'Pastime Paradise' forward means the exact order is not the same, but this is my track four, just like it is on the double - though side one for me and side two for Motown.

Ordinary Pain: lose

This is a strange one. It clocks in at six and a half minutes - long, yes, but not too long for two songs, which is what this effectively is. Somewhere shy of three minutes in, the song comes to a natural conclusion, only to be reborn as a slightly faster 'part two' sung by Shirley Brewer instead of Stevie Wonder. While the shorter 'part one' is a lovely enough mid-tempo composition, the longer 'part two' is far too repetitive, musically, to have much merit. It's the sole disappointment on an otherwise flawless side two.

Isn't She Lovely: keep (side one, track five)

The one moment that most readily divides Songs in the Key of Life fans, and Stevie Wonder fans as a whole: simply put, this song is almost as mushy and schmaltzy as 'I Just Called to Say I Love You' (a horrid blight on a wonderful discography). The joy of becoming a father is clearly one of life's greatest joys, and the desire to commemorate it in song is evident, especially for one who communicates with the world via song. But that does not necessitate that the rest of us should hear what is in fact a private moment, an ego-stroke of rather massive proportions, especially as the minutes tick by and we start to listen to the sounds of Stevie bathing his infant, of all things. And yet, God-damn it, inevitably I succumb. As much as I'd like to hate this song's sentimentality, I merely can't, and it's all to do with the expressive melody, the happy-go-lucky instrumentation, and Stevie's best-ever performance on one of the several instruments of which he is an undisputed master: the harmonica. In most people's hands, the harmonica is either a bluesy drone or a mere annoyance, but Wonder plays the instrument like no other, a clarion call of simple happiness and exuberance. He sounds like no one else, and you can listen to him carry on for minutes, as you do here, without getting tired of it.

My final tracklist takes only two extended tunes and puts them alongside eight radio-length tracks. That being the case, I don't care for the original album's tendency to crowd the longer songs together on the second LP. If you have two long ones and eight short ones, it makes sense to divide them down the middle - one and four per side. So as the other long one is my album closer, this one got relegated to side one. It's bright-morning exuberance might seem better suited for a side-opener, but its lengthy conclusion also makes it an ideal predecessor to needle silence. At the end of side one.

Joy Inside My Tears: lose

Though the first disc features two lengthy pieces and the second disc two briefer ones, by and large Songs in the Key of Love is programmed in such a fashion as to spotlight briefer moments on the first disc and then longer vamps on the second. So as there's not necessarily any wavering in the quality of the compositions themselves across the two discs, ultimately one's preference for one disc or another will have much to do with one's opinion of songs that last longer than a 45 rpm 7" could accommodate. My prejudices on this topic are laid quite clear, I suppose - but it's not quite as cut and dry as merely excising any track that exceeds five minutes. For me, a lengthy track has to justify its length, and I'm not sure many do on Songs in the Key of Life. This, for example, is a truly gorgeous song, like 'Love's in Need of Love Today' a slow-burning stadium-filling crowd-pleaser. But, pardon my insolence, why is it six and a half minutes long? There's nothing in this song that hasn't been said by the three-minute point, and yet the song is less than half over by that point. It's tough not to find yourself rolling your eyes as Stevie goes into the one-hundredth iteration of the same two lines of lyrics that make up the majority of this song. Pity, because it's a thing of beauty.

Black Man: lose

I said earlier that there were only two songs on this entire behemoth I found it challenging to listen to from start to finish. In one case, it's largely the sickly-sweet instrumentation, but in the other case - this one - the elementary-school-funk background is quite enjoyable indeed. But this is what it is: a dated eight-and-a-half-minute public service announcement, a well-meaning 'educational' reminder of the ethnic diversity of American 'heroes' and pioneers. The flag-waving fervour is apparently in honour of the USA's bicentennial in 1977, but it clearly comes from a genuine source of patriotism buried within a man who was apparently thinking of leaving the USA and moving to Ghana at around this time. And yet jingoism is no more attractive when 'genuine', and this whole exercise is unpleasant, as well-meaning as it might be. By the final two minutes, a mock 'classroom' featuring 'teachers' and children shouting out people's names, it's become an embarrassment to listen to.

Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I am Singing: keep (side two, track four)

After the well-meaning browbeating of the previous song, we get yet another well-meaning celebration of diversity, in this case via a song that renders its chorus in three different languages - Zulu, Spanish and a clearly relieved English. I can't say much about how authentic Wonder's Zulu and Spanish are, but this kind of po-faced 'inclusiveness' has lost much of its lustre in the intervening thirty-six years. If all it had going for it was the novelty of hearing Wonder sing foreign languages, this track would probably not make my final tracklist. As it is, though, it also happens to feature a wonderful melody line, beautifully sung (the third iteration, in English, features perhaps Wonder's best singing on the album) and atop another one-man-band performance of real character (minus the percussion, apparently played by nine people, though I don't hear it).

Like it or not, in may cases albums' original tracklists have effects on my tracklists. The first four tracks on my album come from disc one of the double, and the final three tracks all come from the end of the package - including this one, which I raise to the position of 'penultimate track': side two, track four.

If It's Magic: lose

Probably the most experimental moment on this album is this particular track, arranged for solo voice and two overdubbed harmonicas with concert harp accompaniment. And nothing else. The harp is not the most versatile of instruments, and I must confess not one of my personal favourites. It makes the recording more than a little boring in my opinion, not helped by a bit of a ho-hum composition that fails to stick in the memory. The brief little snatches of harmonica are the highlights, but it's nowhere near enough.

As: keep (side two, track five)

Let's review, then, the main criticisms of this album: pat lyrics that cross the boundary of good taste, and songs that continue on and on for no good reason. Consider, then, the wonder of 'As', one of the album's four singles, in a version greatly condensed from these seven minutes. The overall groove of the track is a kind of easy-listening funk, a flowing and swaying groove of a jazzy thing played by a full band (as opposed to a one-man show) over which Herbie Hancock adds layers and layers of delightful Hammond paint. A chorus of background vocalists add a gospel feel to the proceedings, and the lyrics go on for pages and pages (in the original booklet) filled with various poetic and metaphysical ways to say 'I'll be loving you always'. Stevie Wonder the lyricist excels here, and nothing is trite, even the most unguarded lines. And he sets it to music that shows Stevie Wonder the composer (and arranger) at his very finest. Not a single moment is wasted, and though the song goes on for a whole seven minutes, it could have gone on even longer.

As this song gracefully fades away, it seems preposterous to follow it with anything else. Alas, by that definition Stevie Wonder is preposterous, because he does. But I don't. It's my final track: side two, track five.

Another Star: lose

Unless you're Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or Pink Floyd, how much hubris does it take to follow up a seven-minute epic with an eight-and-a-half-minute one? Plenty... but there are quite a few epic songs here, and as I've already said, most of them don't really merit their length. Does this one? Well, the feel of the song is quite attractive: it's a harder piece than 'As', with a more insistent forward motion and more hyperactive rolls of drums, over which any number of instruments percolate and a brass section competes with some rather repetitive 'la la la' vocals for primacy. Stevie Wonder's epic pieces tend to follow a structure of 'composition plus vamp', and when the composition merits it, the listener is more than pleased to listen to a bit of a vamp. The listener should want to; he or she should be loathe to let the song go. But in this case, the composition is three and a half minutes and the vamp is an indulgent five, tiresome even for the jammiest of us. By the bitter end, the song's very real charms have long since dissipated.

Saturn: lose

The seven-inch 'ep' that served as the third disc of Songs int he Key of Life, that runs at 33 rpm, lasts about fifteen minutes and contains four songs, is titled 'A Something's Extra', a name that implies it's a bit of an 'addendum' to the album proper, like bonus tracks on reissued CDs. None of the four songs are particularly show-stopping, and their relative anonymity suggests that most of the album's fans play the third disc much less than the first two. Yet no edition of the album exists that omits these four songs, so they're 'core' to the whole package. And they're quite decent, at times wonderful. Not this time, though, as the head-in-the-stars sci-fi of the lyrics and the swooping would-be 'grandeur' of the synths manage to evoke the most self-indulgent moments of both new-age music and prog-rock. At the same time. This track sits alongside 'Black Man' as only one of two songs on the whole project I find difficult to listen to.

Ebony Eyes: keep (side two, track three)

From the pomp of the stratosphere, we come crashing down with perhaps the most down-to-earth track on the whole collection: an earthy strut of a song built around staccato piano chords, with perhaps the most enjoyable talk-box performance not made by Roger Troutman. The song is incredibly charming, not in any misty-eyed or sickly way but just in the simple charms of a down-home vibe. It's a delightful song, all the more so for how unsung it is: tucked away on the seven-inch that no-one plays or even talks about, a tiny little piece of wonder. No surprise that Songs in the Key of Life is so highly rated: even its darkest corners are filled with delights.

Poor Stevie didn't know quite what to do with this song, and neither do I. My side two is a bit all-over-the-place, and I've put this one smack-dab in the centre of that: side two, track three.

All Day Sucker: lose

No mere ditty at five minutes, 'All Day Sucker' still feels quite compact for the funk workout it is. Though there's a bizarre mix of instrumentation, including a marimba here and there and a rhythm that somehow sounds like a malfunctioning drum machine, the piece is 'hard' by Wonder's standards: the guitar is quite 'dirty' and the bass is quite aggressive. All in all, though, the song does too little to stand out. It feels like an outtake: while clearly an enjoyable listening experience, it's not distinctive enough to rank with the very best, though still too good to dispose of entirely. It's a good listening, but on this epic album 'good' just isn't good enough.

Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call): lose

Is this the album's final track? Or was that 'Another Star'? If it's that one, then the album goes out on an epic, with a four-song encore. If it's this one, then the track ends not with a bang but with a whimper, a lazy little instrumental shuffle so non-descript that at first you barely even notice it. But its charms sink in with time: it has an evocative harmonica melody and a nonchalant feel, mood music for a relaxed time at home. With your mama, I suppose. It's quite decent stuff, but ultimately it's 'throwaway', and there's too much here that's essential.

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