That's the way it was back in the 1970s. Stevie Wonder owned the Grammys, winning Album of the Year in 1974, 1975, and 1977. Nowadays, the Grammys seem to be randomly distributed among indie (Arcade Fire), country (Taylor Swift), Americana (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) and jazz tributes to '70s icons (Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell record). Stevie Wonder, however, won his Grammys at a time when pretty much everybody loved him. He sold millions of records, the critics raved and his peers respected him immensely.
The first album for which Wonder was given the Grammy was "Innervisions." It's nine perfect songs about the imperfections of mankind. Stevie Wonder is sometimes mocked as having a pie-in-the-sky spirituality and a simplified "can't-we-all-just-get-along" philosophy. But as cloying as "Ebony and Ivory" would be later in his career, the music he made in his phenomenal run back in the '70s was never one-sided.
He sang of hope, yes, but that hope required a clear acknowledgement of evil, injustice and danger. He sang of belief in aid from outside, of a God that will take you to highest ground and of the way a lover can be there for you so you don't have to worry about a thing, but he was also very clear that all change came from inside, and that you were ultimately responsible for your life.
Stevie Wonder was certainly responsible for his own music. Yes, he hired musicians to play parts -- to spectacularly beautiful effect in particular by acoustic guitarist Dean Parks and electric guitarist David "T" Walker on "Visions" -- but the vast majority of sounds heard on "Innervisions" were created entirely by Wonder himself.
His acoustic and electric pianos, Moog synthesizer and Moog bass, drums, lead and backing vocals are intricately layered on top of and across each other. You can hear him borrowing from jazz, blues, gospel, soul and funk. You can hear him taking out of thin air the ingredients necessary to create what has since become so intricately a part of our collective experience. "Living in the City," "Higher Ground," "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" -- these are songs which dominate the skyline of pop music history still, 38 years after their creation.
These songs are beautiful, compelling, danceable and catchy as all git-out, too. Stevie Wonder had been making records for eleven years by this time, but he was still only 23. The wunderkind had turned into a man only two albums before, when he was given the freedom to produce and create exactly the music he heard in his mind. His talents as a lyricist, melodicist, rhythmicist, musician and singer are beyond belief.
"Innervisions" opens with the jazzy "Too High," a song which captures the seduction of drugs before it crashes down to show their dangerous contribution to mortality. Wonder is not opposed to reaching for the sky; he wants to experience all things, and he believes it's good to aspire to what is beyond us. But this is a song about an addict, a person who couldn't get past the desire for more. Wonder doesn't moralize here, despite saying she wasn't nice. He simply states what can happen if the search for a better world doesn't contain some element of grounding in the real one.
And then comes "Visions," in which he questions the possibility of the world living up to the dream. Followed by "Living in the City," in which the dream is clearly a nightmare from which action is required to awaken. Taken together, these three songs imply that the world is hard, that justice is possible only if we make it happen, that it's vital to imagine better times but even more vital to find a way to achieve them. "If we don't change the world will soon be over."
The rest of the record elaborates further. "Golden Lady" is an exquisite slice of heavenly love for a woman who can help him achieve peace. "Higher Ground" may be washed in mystical mumbo-jumbo about reincarnation, but it is equally clear that the onus of responsibility is on each of us to become the best we can be. "Jesus Children of America" is a song that feels much deeper than it reads on the page; the way Wonder and his overdubbed harmonies glide around each other with the lyrics makes the accusations hurled at sinners more a desire to bring them into his folding arms than to cast them out away from his society.
"All in Love is Fair" seems apart from the rest of the record, though it is every bit as beautiful to hear as anything else. It's a tale of abandonment and regret, but even here, if you try, you can feel the need to be true to oneself no matter where it takes you. "Don't You Worry ‘Bout a Thing," with the exhilarating Latin rhythms, shows the readiness to help another, in this case a lover who must take her own responsibility for change. But that change, while individual, will be achieved more easily with his connection to her so firmly established.
Finally, there is "He's Misstra Know-It-All," one of Wonder's most enticing hook-filled concoctions, which reminds us that while we need each other to succeed, while we have to take control of our own lives, we must also be wary of those who would drag us down.
"Innervisions" is only one of five remarkable masterpieces Wonder produced in the 1970s. It's pretty much impossible to argue that any one of them is better than the others. Still, when I was asked to write about a single Stevie Wonder album, I had little doubt this would be the one. When I reached into the darkness of my CD shelves to the approximate area where I knew Stevie Wonder was kept, I randomly grabbed "Innervisions."
Yep, it was my responsibility to choose, but it's nice to know that it might have happened anyway.
Join KDHX as we celebrate the music of Stevie Wonder at a benefit and tribute concert at Off Broadway on September 30.