Stevie Wonder – “Innervisions” (1973)

There are things I take for granted as a rapidly-approaching-fifty-year-old person. The relative convenience of air travel. Modern medicine. Grocery stores full of food. The bullshit that is the two-party political system. And, of course, recorded music.

Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions came out a couple of years after I was born, and the album itself is now 46 years old. And here I am listening to it on a vinyl disc that’s almost half a century old while enjoying some coffee on a Saturday morning. However, if I was my current age in 1973… would I be listening to a 46 year old recording for enjoyment? Said recording would have to date from 1927 and would have been on a shellac disc or a cylinder, so I guess it’s possible, though I likely would have needed a vintage machine to play it, unlike my ability to use my modern Rega to spin some old school Stevie. And would middle-aged 1973 me actually even want to listen to that music from 1927? Maybe. I don’t know. But chances are I wouldn’t have been born into and grown up in a household in which music was readily available on records, 8-tracks, cassettes, and dozens of radio stations. I suppose as I get older I’m simply more likely to notice how things change, but also how they stay the same, all the while recognizing that just because an experience has been ubiquitous in my lifetime doesn’t mean it was for people just a couple of generations older than me. People who are still alive. To paraphrase the incomparable Lemmy from Motörhead, “I remember a time when there was no rock ‘n’ roll, when there was only your parents’ Rosemary Clooney records.”

So what about Innervisions? Well, the more recent Rolling Stone lists rank it as one of the Top 25 albums of all time. Think whatever you like about Rolling Stone, but that’s still some high praise. And it won the Album of the Year Grammy, which despite some historically questionable choices (Toto IV in 1983) isn’t an accident.

Wonder’s signature ARP synth certainly makes it feel dated today, but his voice and passion, not to mention those sweet grooves, will still hold you. His original version of “Higher Ground” is every bit as funky as the better known (to my generation) cover by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lyrically it’s incredibly deep, covering a range of issues like drug abuse and racism while somehow being both cautionary and optimistic at the same time. And those Latin vibes on “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”? C’mon. If that doesn’t make you dream of dancing outside with that special someone you might be dead. And it goes pretty great with a cup of coffee on a quiet Saturday morning too.

Stevie Wonder – “Talking Book” (1972)

Prior to picking up this battered copy of Talking Book the other day, I’m fairly confident I’d never listened to a Stevie Wonder album all the way through. My relationship with Stevie was via his greatest hits catalog, songs I’d hear on my parent’s car stereo, and probably “Ebony and Ivory” when it first came out. I know the same ones everyone else does, though I suspect that my depth of knowledge is much shallower than a typical person my age. I’m not sure why, but for whatever reason I was just never curious enough to listen just a little harder.

The 1,500th Post All Time Top 5 experiment got Stevie Wonder back on my radar, as two of my friends included Songs In The Key Of Life on their lists. The only copy I fond the other day was in pretty bleak shape so I passed on it, but I did snag this VG (OK, maybe a bit less than VG…) copy of Talking Book, which was from the same period. I figured the album would be in a similar feel to it’s opening track, the Stevie-mega-hit “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, but that’s not when I got when I dropped the needle. In fact, that song is more the exception than the rule. There’s a certain sterility about that track, even on vinyl (♠), that sound that comes from such a great song being so perfectly performed that it seem fake, as in “c’mon man, no one can possibly make a song so impeccably smooth”, but there it is… real. So real and so perfect as to almost become boring. But don’t worry, because the rest of Talking Book is real. And I’m not talking just about the blazing funk of the B side opening “Superstition”, with that simmering tempo rise and Wonder’s spiritualism-soaked voice. That’s pretty good too, and fortunately didn’t succumb to the perfection-induced fate of its partner.

Don’t let this make you think Talking Book is two hit singles and eight fillers because that would be a terrible mistake and you wouldn’t listen to the rest of this great music. Sure, “Blame It On The Sun” feels like an attempt at radio-friendly chart-topper, but there’s a lot of depth to the rest of this album. The sentimental-without-being-sappy “Big Brother”, the prog-rock-style guitar solo dropped into the middle of the otherwise smooth jazz of “Lookin For Another Pure Love”, and the crescendo of “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” are more than ample reasons to get yourself a copy of Talking Book. Plus you get a few big hits thrown in for free.

(♠) I think the flatter sound I hear on this 1970s vinyl is, in this case, better than something remastered over say the last 30 years. That flatness actually serves Wonder well.