It was 1961, and the world desperately needed their Stevie Wonder. Not that people already realized that it was Stevie’s voice that could fill the gap between the counterculture movement that was only starting to get a momentum, and the melancholy for the simpler and more heart-felt era of jazz that the 20ies and the 40ies were was growing. Blind and genial, Stevie gave the audience what they wanted, a touching child prodigy story and a bunch of even more moving songs.
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Unlike one might have predicted, by the end of the 60ies and the beginning of the1970ies, the novelty of Stevie Wonder’s songs had not worn off; on the contrary, as Ribovsky remarked, “for the soul aficionado, the real sorcery of Stevie Wonder arose in and endures from the 1970ies, a decade he owned” (Ribovsky 3).
Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder’s album that was inspired by peaked higher than the sky and the title of which was “chosen as a canon and guidepost” (Ribovsky 261), is a perfect specimen of the singer’s oeuvre. With the help of the power of his singer’s and songwriter’s talent, Stevie Wonder managed to express the concern for the problems of the 1970ies,
Love’s in Need of Love Today and As
It comes as a big surprise that this is not another interpretation of I Just Called… Despite the similar beat and the same soothing melody, the song actually managed to hit the chord between a protest, a reproach and an encouragement for a change. The contrast between the soothing melody and a vision of a collapsing world is rather thought-provoking. Compared to this song, As offers a more romantic interpretation of longing for love, yet conveys the same idea.
Have a Talk with God
Making a connection to his previous message, Stevie Wonder suggests the way to right the wrongs of the world by having a talk with God. Rather naïve, yet also very touching song, it does sound a little preachy, yet for the time slot which it was intended for, it works perfectly well.
Village Ghetto Land, Isn’t She Lovely?, Black Man and Ebony Eyes
Of course, it would not be a Stevie Wonder album if it did not tell about the problem of peace from the point of the people who have been affected it most. Despite the mellow tone of the song and Wonder’s soft voice, the song actually came out as an eye-opener, shedding some light on the life of the African Americans in a typical American Black ghetto.
Even though some messages were too on-the-nose, like “Families buying dog food now”, the song is still a solid message about the key problems of the America of the 70ies. Conveying a similar idea, Ebony Eyes and Isn’t She Lovely? tell about the beauty that shines even through the mess of a ghetto, while Black Man considers the issue from a man’s perspective.
Another message about the world peace, Confusion pins down the true reasons for all the world’s major troubles, and makes it obvious that the root of all people’s problems, both personal and political, is misunderstanding. It seems that at the times when the USA was in the confrontation with the USSR and Asia, the message concerning the importance of a compromise was more than relevant.
A tribute to Duke Ellington, a famous jazz musician, Sir Duke seems to be a slight departure from the key theme of the album. In contrast to the previous songs, Sir Duke celebrates the pioneers in the American jazz music. At first sight, the song seems hardly related to the context of the entire album; in a retrospective, though, one will see that Sir Duke conveys the message that music can be the force uniting nations and solving conflicts.
While Songs in the Key of Life are great for the most part, there is one problem about them, and this problem is the target audience. Despite being rather mellow and soft, the songs are mostly intended for the adults – and not just for adults, but for the ones who actually have some kind of power to change the existing political situation for better.
However, every rule has its exception, and here is the one for the Songs in the Key of Life. Though I Wish is not technically about children or for children, it makes the grown-ups travel back in time and remember themselves as kids. Therefore, the message of peace that the entire album is shot through becomes even more powerful.
Knocks Me off My Feet
Just when people thought that for once, they will get a strong album from one of the greatest performers in the soul.pop genre period, about social and political issues and the idea of humanity shooting the entire album through, a touch clichéd, but generally good chunk of music, there comes Knocks Me Off My Feet – a love songthat seems completely out of place here.
It can be considered a part of the grand scheme of spreading love all over the world, but that seems too big a stretch. Perhaps, Stevie wanted to enthrall the audience with a kind of a personal story that any person can easily relate to, but in the context of the socially charged song of the album, this one seems a bit out of place.
When considering The Songs in the Key of Life, one will find it quite intriguing that the album is structured in a very specific way. The compositions that were supposed to come out as big hits did not come as a whole – there were quite a lot of lyrical fillers that allowed more meaningful artworks to breathe.
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After a relaxing Knocks Me off My Feet, Pastime Paradise becomes even more meaningful and innovative. While the use of synthesizer made the song sound like a full string section, which was a great innovation at the time, the lyrics sound much like a direct reproach, which is quite unusual for Stevie’s oeuvre.
Making it clear that the 1970ies world lives in the realm of its own imaginary heaven, the singer warns that the price for this delusion is going to be very high. With Joy inside My Tears concerning the revelation of peace as a close follow-up, Pastime Paradise becomes all the more meaningful. Hence, the political situation of the 70ies shaped the album a lot (Perone).
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
One of the many questions that this song raises is why putting a Zulu word, a Spanish phrase and an English sentence, with each of three meaning completely different things. However, if diving into the song’s meaning, one will realize that this is another message about the necessity to stop fighting and become a single entity. Hence comes the title, which symbolizes the reconciliation of all nations.
If It’s Magic
With the world’s political leaders’ futile attempts at changing the situation for the better and using more peaceful means to solve the conflicts, If It’s Magic sounds like a reproach, asking people why they seek for brutal ways to confront their opponents.
Another Star and Saturn
Those two come as a whole, for they are based on the same social issue. While telling about living in a different reality, they hint at the issue of immigration, which was huge in the 60ies and 70ies.
All Day Sucker
All Day Sucker is another common call for love and peace. While offering nothing as remarkable as I am Singing, it is still a decent song.
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
The last, but definitely not the least song in the album, Easy Goin’ Evening allows to make the politically seasoned message more subtle and end the album on a light-hearted and whimsically romantic note.
Despite the fact that the present-day music industry seems to take over the original ideas of musicians and produce the processed music which is very easy to digest and which yet gives as little food for thoughts as little it says about the personality of the artist, Stevie Wonder’s legacy lives on, and the artist still manages to produce relatively solid artworks.
Though the present-day Stevie Wonder does not match the Stevie of the 1970ies – there is no I Just Called to Say I Love You there – it seems that the singer still retains the original style which was coined in 1973 as Songs in the Key of Life was released.
Managing to stay tuned into the tendencies of the modern R&B, pop and funk, Stevie still produces the music that has the charm of the 1973’s Songs in the Key of Life, and this is what the audience adores him for. After all, the melancholy for the simpler and more heart-felt era of funk that the 70ies were is growing.
Perone, James E. The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music. Westport, CN: Greenwood Publishing Group. 2006. Print.
Ribovsky, Mark. Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons. 2010. Print.