Now that I'm firmly ensconsed on the wrong side of forty - and, truthfully, starting to enjoy it - it seems I'm noticing more and more how important little pieces of history can get shoved aside by circumstances or just the simple passage of time. How many young record (oops, CD) buyers today know that Sting used to be in a band? Or that Jakob Dylan's dad is kind of famous, too? Or that barely a generation ago, Martin Luther King Day was not a national holiday, but rather a controversial proposal that also became the subject of a song by one of the 1970s' most successful musical acts?
Stevie Wonder was quite possibly the most gifted, prolific and
serious-minded artist working the r & b and pop charts in the
'70s. On classic albums like
Talking Book, he combined philosophical, socially-conscious
lyrics with grooving, keyboard-based funk, lightening things up in
between with his distinctly romantic, even sensuous ballads. After
peaking with 1976's double-album opus
Songs in the Key of Life, though, Wonder took most of the rest of the decade off from music. Aside from a somewhat odd soundtrack album, Wonder didn't issue another album of new music for four years.
Hotter Than July arrived in 1980 complete with all the elements that had made Wonder such a unique artist - the thoughtful lyrics, the complex arrangements, the multiplicity of musical approaches. The pulsating "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me" kicks things off with one of the most danceable grooves Wonder ever constructed, which he tops off with one of the most exuberant vocals of his career. "All I Do" follows like a sequel, the gently pleading seduction at the party's end, covering the same lyrical ground but in the context of a ballad as lush and romantic as you're ever likely to hear.
Born romantic that he is, though, Wonder doesn't shy away from exploring darker shades of emotion and the inevitable tangles real-life relationships get into. In the troubled ballad "Rocket Love," he veers from ecstasy to agony as his romantic entreaties are repeatedly rejected; in "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It," a steady groove and clever metaphors can't disguise the simmering fury of a cuckolded husband. And "Lately" is possibly the most affecting ballad of his career, a self-interrogation in which he puts the blame squarely on himself for the fragile state of a relationship he senses is crumbling around him.
The principal single from this album, "Master Blaster (Jammin')," is actually one of its lesser tracks, an attempt at a social-unity anthem that offers a pleasant reggae backbeat and horn-section accents, but never really ignites. It's only toward the end of the disc that Wonder finds his socio-political feet. "Cash in Your Face" is up there with his 1972 classic "Living Just Enough For the City" in terms of effectively portraying the devastating human cost of racism.
But the closing "Happy Birthday" is the album's true emotional center, a buoyant song of praise to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy that takes the unique approach of combining rhythmic synthesizer tones with a soaring gospel chorus. As its author hoped, it became the de facto theme song of the movement to recognize King's birthday as a national holiday. Knowing now how the story ended, it's an even more fitting finale to Stevie Wonder's best album of the '80s.
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