STEVIE WONDER, Innervisions (Tamla/Motown, 1973)
- Too High
- Living for the City
- Golden Lady
- Higher Ground
- Jesus Children of America
- All In Love is Fair
- Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing
- He’s Misstra Know-It-All
Between 1972 and ’76, Stevie Wonder could do no wrong. Already dubbed a musical genius as a teenager in the sixties, the R&B legend was truly approaching the top of his game by the turn of the decade. In ’72, many would say he got there.
In the span of five short calendar years, Stevie Wonder unleashed unto the world his legendary albums Music of My Mind (’72), Talking Book (’72), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (’74), and Songs in the Key of Life (’76), which was a double album. Each record established itself in the pantheon of Soul music, and no other artist, save maybe the Beatles between 1966 and ’70 produced a body of work on par with Wonder’s ’72-’76 output.
There is brilliance to be found within each of those albums. Wonder was creating and producing music at its highest level. But the creme de la creme came in 1973, when Innervisions was released. That record was the equivalent of a high-octane engine already firing on all cylinders receiving a turbo charger. And given that Wonder was a product of Detroit’s Motown (by way of his recently begun indie label Tamla) label, the metaphor seems even more appropriate.
The world in general, and the United States in particular, was undergoing rapid-fire change during the early ’70s. This was particularly true for African-Americans of the time, who were still dealing with the fallout of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in ’68. A Civil Rights era originally based in the concepts of peace, love, understanding, and turning the other cheek had become more insistent and assertive, thanks to the Black Power movement. There was no way this social consciousness could not find its way into the music of the time. Sam Cooke and Otis Redding — known for mostly singing soulful ballads — were giving way to Sly and the Family Stone and a more resurgent James Brown, who de-emphasized songs like “I Feel Good” in favor of more urgent songs like “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”
Motown founder Berry Gordy was more about generating hits than creating social change, it was believed. But his artists were well aware of what was going on outside the studio, and that angst made its way on to Motown recordings, chart-topping desires be damned. The first major blow was struck by Marvin Gaye in 1971 when he released What’s Going On, a cry for social understanding and justice that hit like a sledgehammer then and continues to resonate today. The door had been kicked open, and there was no putting it back on the hinges. Stevie Wonder walked right on through, and took things to the next level.
With Innervisions, Wonder took on a wide variety of social-based topics, starting with drug abuse. “Too High” may sound like a light and bouncy mood-setting album-opener, but the songs lyrics say otherwise. A closer listen reveals the story of a woman full of potential, curtailed by drug abuse. “She’s the girl in her life,” the song laments, “But her world’s a superficial paradise / She had a chance to make it big more than once or twice / But no dice / She wasn’t very nice.”
From there, things only get heavier.
“Visions” comes from the point of view of a man desperate to be idealistic about the state of the world, but knows better, as his ideals are more a figment of his hopeful imagination. Is there hope? Can things turn in a more positive direction? Time will tell. My original belief that this tune slows the album’s pace is quickly pushed aside by the natural segue into “Living for the City,” which chronicles brilliantly the struggle of African-Americans trying to make their way in the post-King world, and running into barriers at almost every turn. Working long, hard hours of menial labor nets little for our narrator, assuming one can find any kind of work at all. And a seemingly innocent mistake made shortly after arriving in New York City — where things were bound to get better — shows the injustice felt by minorities regardless of geographic location within the United States. The song is as powerful a statement as any protest-driven song of the era.
Wonder does manage to slip a quick ode to love onto Innervisions by way of “Golden Lady.” And while I don’t go out of my way to admire most love songs, this one is well-placed within the album’s context, giving listeners a quick chance to breathe and take in all that came before this song. It’s a pleasant way to exit Side One.
Wonder is back to teaching with “Higher Ground,” a song that reminds us to make the most of the opportunities we receive, because they won’t come forever. This song seems particularly poignant given Wonder’s near-fatal car accident he suffered shortly after this album’s release. “I’m so glad that he let me try it again,” Wonder declares, “‘Cause my last time on earth I loved a whole world of sin / I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then / Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground.” It’s easy to get lost in the song’s funky rhythm and air-tight clarinet leads. It is the lyrics that bring the song’s true depth home.
Just how Wonder feels about Christianity is best left to the interpretation of the listener, based on “Jesus Children of America.” To me, he represents the spiritual cynic. Are we the product of what we worship, which may not be the God many think he’s talking about? It’s a good subject for theologian debate. Or at the minimum, a good long individual think. “All in Love is Fair” is probably the best sung composition on the album. Wonder declares the mystery of love and commitment with such power and passion, we have no choice but to stop and consider it. “Don’t You Worry About a Thing” is as catchy as anything else on the record, but it is not to be dismissed as throwaway fluff. If anything, the songs lyrics go right to the heart of the album’s title, as an examination of self-worth, which is entirely incumbent on the person looking in the mirror.
By the time Wonder takes on then-president Richard Nixon in “He’s Misstra Know-it-All,” the true overall depth of Innervisions has truly taken hold. At first, I wasn’t all that fond of the song’s hook, which repeats throughout the last portion of the song. But then I thought of the ending of “Hey Jude,” perhaps my favorite Beatles songs, and the fact that Wonder is still extolling wisdom at the end of his tune. My annoyance fell away, and I was singing along with everyone else.
It seems a little trite to say Stevie Wonder fully captures The Black Experience of the early ’70s with Innervisions. That being said, it’s also hard to argue against that statement. Wonder offers us multiple points of view in an eclectic array of musical styles, giving us enough room to both appreciate what he has to say and to reach our own musical and lyrical conclusions. To be certain, these conclusions are subject to context, since I was six or seven years old when this album was released. There’s no way I can feel what my parents were feeling during that time. I can only fall back on my own experiences, where I find more than a few parallels. But what I feel is certainly not what others will feel. Everyone must have his own experience.
That being said, few albums define Soul music of the ’70s the way Innervisions does for me. The album encapsulates everything that was musically great about the era, yet it never sounds dated. A songwriter that can make the catchy poignant and the poignant catchy has captured something very special, indeed. Stevie Wonder manages to do just that here. I would stop to listen to any song on this album, regardless of how far along, any time I heard it.
If that doesn’t make Innervisions perfect, I don’t know what does.
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