Stevie Wonder

Tamla, 1973

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


[Adapted from a review that first appeared in On The Town Magazine 4/2/96]

The crime of Stevie Wonder's remarkable thirty-plus year career is that a generation exists today who think of him principally as the guy who sang that cheesy long-distance ad jingle ("I Just Called to Say I Love You," from the otherwise-forgotten 1984 soundtrack album The Woman In Red). Let the truth be known: this man was and always will be one of the great ones, even if the years since his 1972-76 heyday haven't matched what went before.

Coming fully into his own after a decade of youthful Motown-formula hit-making, Wonder produced in Innervisions perhaps the best of a string of spiritually-tinged, socially-conscious funk-and-ballad albums he issued in an astounding five-year burst of creativity in the early '70s. (Music Of My Mind, Talking Book and Fulfillingness' First Finale, and the double album-plus Songs In The Key Of Life are the others.) The remarkable footnote here is that during this period Wonder was, as a twenty-one-to-twenty-six-year-old former child star, almost singlehandedly writing, arranging, producing and playing the extremely mature and complex music on these albums. Not to mention, doing so while blind…

Innervisions was the my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 peak of Wonder's skillful melding of spirituality and sensuality, layering his social consciousness, philosophical explorations and simmering romanticism over a series of driving dance rhythms and knockout melodies.

“Too High” opens things up with characteristic creativity, a smoldering, funked-up rhythm chart establishing the groove before Wonder layers high counterpointing background vocals on top. It’s just a brief vignette before the song proper starts, yet it encapsulates Wonder’s brilliance beautifully. He’s got the groove nailed, but doesn’t settle; instead he adds orchestral touches that take the song to a whole new level.

That groove -- and everything Wonder adds to it -- is what Innervisions is all about.

Even the contemplative “Visions” -- a daring choice for track number two, as it’s the slowest and most serious song on the album -- shows great imagination in the way the rather classical acoustic guitar melody is complemented by gentle, jazzy electric licks that give the song its texture and resonance.

"Living For The City" is where Wonder’s vision really takes off, though, as he faces weighty social issues head on while grounding his message in driving rhythms. The song’s topical subject matter and structure -- especially its “theater of the mind” spoken bridge -- mark this one as a creative milestone, an exceptionally potent illustration of the urban black experience circa 1973. Late in the song Wonder forgoes lyrics entirely for a powerful crescendo of r&b groove counterpointed with a gospel vocal chorus.

The album’s other high point is the pulsating funk groove of "Higher Ground" -- so joyfully exploited by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their brilliant, thrashing 1989 hardcore cover -- which lifts you right off the floor even as Wonder essays one of his most intensely spiritual lyrics. But truthfully, there’s not a weak moment to be found on Innervisions. The lush romantic drama of "All In Love Is Fair," the burning Latin-inflected funk of "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing," and the sweet keyboard melodies of "Misstra Know-It-All" and "Golden Lady" each have their part to play in the album’s overall impact.

Innervisions is one of those right-voice-at-the-right-time albums that’s a milestone not just for the artist or even the genre, but for the entire era. It’s got more groove than a 78 RPM LP and more soul than a gospel choir, and it’s the single best album of Wonder’s storied career.

Rating: A

User Rating: A


© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Tamla, and is used for informational purposes only.