Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #16

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book

I’m beginning to think Stevie Wonder may be a forgotten master. He’s never stopped being popular – “Superstition” has over half a billion streams on Spotify – but, unlike Steely Dan for example, it seems that popularity is being driven entirely by oldsters rather than finding a new audience. This occurred to me when my massage therapist, who is roughly a decade younger, told me about a friend getting her to listen to some of his albums, which were new to her. His run in the ‘60s and ‘70s has few equals. But after 1980, there isn’t much worth listening to. If you came to his music after that, your main avenues of exposure would have probably been “Ebony and Ivory” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, two of the most execrable pieces of garbage ever put to tape by a major artist. And if that is how you first heard of him, then it is more than reasonable if you decided that your ears had suffered enough offence for one lifetime. Which is too bad, because, man, when he was on, it was fire.

This is one of those “on fire” records. 

I have probably heard “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” hundreds of times over the years, and it always seemed like a sappy song of no great significance. But when the needle dropped and the familiar sounds washed over me, I felt so happy. It was a beautiful sunny day, I was strolling on my beloved boardwalk, and the world just felt like a really good place for a change. That was Wonder’s power – he brought joy with his music.

His other ballads are great – especially “You and I”, which I first heard in 1976/77 as the “B” side to either “I Wish” or “Sir Duke” (I had both on 45). It leads with piano, but it’s the synthesizer underlying it that gives the song an air of needed sadness, since it is as much about the fear of losing a great love as the joy of being in the middle of it. But it’s the funkier songs that I like best. “Maybe Your Baby”, with Ray freaking Parker Jr. on guitar, is a classic strut song, the kind where you feel more confident just hearing it, like mainlining cool (though it goes on for about two minutes longer than needed). His voice is so dexterous – it might have been my fourth listen when I finally realized it’s Wonder singing the chorus. Or “Superstition”, which I was surprised to discover had a heavy contribution from Jeff Beck (whose version from the Beck, Bogert, Appice album is a much rockier approach to the song).

There is a richness to the record, and as sweet and gentle as it can sound at times, it’s never cloying, because he leans on synths, and their technical chill, rather than strings for those backing elements. There’s some great soulful pop, too, like “Tuesday Heartbreak”, with sax and wah-wah disco sounds, “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever)”. There isn’t a weak track, though “Big Brother” is a tad heavy-handed lyrically.

There’s going to be a lot of Stevie in my future – he released three more all-time great albums between 1973 and 1976 – and I can’t wait. Until now, I really didn’t appreciate his mastery. There was too much “Ebony and Ivory” clogging my ears.

(Originally posted on Facebook, August 14, 2021)