Stevie Wonder is every pianists hero. We all want to play the way he does. We want to be funky, melodic, epic, jazz influenced geniuses. We are not, but we can sludge our way through Brahms. We want to play “Superstition”.
The guy was a thirteen-year-old superstar, writing songs and getting them on record when Berry Gordy didn’t like that happening, and essentially being the heart and soul of the label in the late sixties as the rest of the acts signed to Motown began to disintegrate and/or fall into drugs, Wonder is a child prodigy done good. His loyalty to his label is to be admired, even with the difficult history included.
Released during the early seventies period of pure artistic brilliance by Wonder that included a string of five records that are only paralleled by David Bowie and the Beatles in their importance, Talking Book is the apex of Wonder’s career. I know some people will make arguments for Innervisions and Songs In the Key of Life, but I think this collection is the strongest. It could be that it’s the album more rock oriented, and as a rock fan I appreciate those touches more. Or it could be that the closing track “I Believe (If I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” is one of my favourite songs of all time.
The album opens with the impossibly lovely “You are the Sunshine of My Life”, one of the great love songs. A soulful bossa nova beat matched with a simple idea lyrically creates a genuine moment. It’s not the most elegant idea, but it’s done so well and so richly it’s too good to dismiss or ignore.
The singular “Superstition”, the propulsive symphonic funk classic, with the memorable bass line and Stevie’s own soaring vocals, is the greatest party song. While essentially about paranoia, it’s eminently danceable and so soulful it’s gone to church and back and has told the preacher what he is doing wrong. Its one of the greatest songs of all time in ANYONES world.
Stevie’s use of the clavinet and synthesizers began to influence the way soul music would head in the seventies. The album is filled with Moog bass, T.O.N.T.O. synths, electric pianos- the very instruments heard on every soul and funk record after 1972. Then he comes along with a song like “Big Brother”, which is based around the clavinet and his harmonica and yet sounds nothing like everything else on the record. Stevie has always managed to be the innovator in the use of electronic instrumentation. By the time the 80s would roll around he’d actually managed to sap all the soul out of his music, and I’d argue that after 1977, Stevie has been a major disappointment musically, which hurts seeing how brilliant the first fifteen years of his career was.
Ultimately, though, Talking Book is the last album of the Stevie who was so adored as a youngster. Despite being a man, writing love songs with Syreeta Wright, his wife whom he had married two years earlier, he was still so young, only 22. Between this album and the next, the legendary and political Innervisions, he would be in a serious traffic accident that left him in a coma for several days. The innocence on this album would never return. The finale, “I Believe (When I Fall In Love)”, is a hopeful love song that sours in its chorus, and Stevie plays every single instrument, sings every part of the harmony, and lovingly crafts this minor key masterpiece. Rarely does a minor key song level hope on its listeners. Stevie did that.
As a cynic and unromantic human being, it seems odd that of all the albums released by Wonder in the 1970s this, the most loving and lovely of his records would be my favourite. Even if it was the romanticism of it that appealed, surely Songs In The Key of Life, with the epic “As” would ring truer. The rock aspects of the album might appeal, but certainly the rock is muted.
If pressed to decide the moment of this album between the three legendary singles and the remaining tracks that equal perfection, I’d actually have to go with the gorgeous hymn like “Blame it On the Sun”. Listen to this and tell me Stevie and Talking Book aren’t worth it?