Welcome to the Summer Series, a project where I share some thoughts about albums that have had a profound effect on me over the years. I am not starting this series in the Summer, nor do I plan on ending before the Autumn Equinox, but it’s warm out and the name is cool so it stays unless I think of something better. This writing is not meant to be critical, or at least not cynical, but effusive in it’s praise. My goal is to capture the beautiful, committed relationships we have to the music we hold so dear. I want to write about records that started as ear candy and evolved into a driving buddy, a therapist, a friend, and a mentor. I’m also interested in how others may relate to my experiences and rediscover a zeal for humankind’s greatest medium. Enjoy!
We would walk into the bar and throw up a number to our buddy Jordan, who was always working on Tuesdays and knew we tipped well enough to serve before the miserly freshmen. If I threw up a four, in about forty-five seconds me and three of my closest friends would each be enjoying a twenty-ounce rum-and-coke with a little extra splash of the house poison as a show of appreciation for all the money we’d spent there. We’d greet the other regulars and make our rounds before settling in and wasting away at table for the next few hours. After a dozen or so drinks, we’d make our way to either Cookout or Waffle House and take down a full meal at 4AM before ubering home and finally going to bed. Waking up the next day at noon with a mean headache, it was time for more food, which often came at the expense of attending class. I managed to only skip one class most Wednesdays, then it was off to work as a pizza delivery driver, a shift that began at five and ended around eleven, which meant it was time to go home, change, and head back to the bars to play back the night prior. This was me at twenty-two.
He had just finished a ridiculous drum run and was now breaking out the T.O.N.T.O. synth to add some pizazz to a track that was already burning the studio down. His collaborators were in disbelief; how could someone this young master so many elements of music, so many instruments and arrange them so beautifully without ever being able to hear it all together until it was finished? It made absolutely no sense, nobody in the world should have this level of talent, especially someone who can’t even *see*. The instrumentation was done, it was time to lay down the vocals. The boy with sunglasses and a wide, toothy smile walks back into the studio to finish what he started. His voice is drenched in an urgent joy, with a range only bested by the Aretha Franklin’s and James Browns’ of the world, and the lyrics he’s belting are written with purpose, a purpose nobody that talented should have the time or bandwidth to take on. As he breaks into a Fozzie Bear voice that somehow works to bring the track home, everyone else in the studio begins to wonder, “Is this the greatest recording artist to ever live?”. That was Stevie Wonder at twenty-two.
It can be easy to grade Stevie on a curve, as the profile of someone that young that was also blind(or so he says) begs to be given points for simply trying. His sound even lends itself to an easy A, an upbeat style that is seldom abrasive, an inviting positivity that’s infectious but doesn’t demand obsession. Stevie’s music does not, at all, require intense listening to pay off it’s audience, which is sometimes held against him in SERIOUS MUSIC conversations. Sometimes we want music to be a little tough, to challenge us a bit and make us think about why we enjoy it and not let us off easy with an answer as easy as “it’s very good and kicks ass”. And to be fair, great music typically does need a little TLC before it reveals it’s greatness; it’s rarely obvious.
But Stevie is different, he makes music you can hear one time and love or listen to obsessively and never get tired of. He’s to music what Scorcese is to film, possessing a rare talent and attention to detail that’s so organic it can only come from someone who loves their work enough not to cheat it. When he does interviews he wants to talk about music, he wants to play a new instrument he discovered or hum a tune he heard recently that he enjoyed, he gets a kick out of talking about his work and weirdly, so do we. Fame does a number on the folks who fall into it, I don’t need to list out examples of it’s victims for you to know that, but Stevie seems to revel in it, not as a diva but as someone who couldn’t be happier that his work is reaching a massive audience. Passion can be annoying, as can greatness, but the combination of the two is intoxicating to witness, especially when the passion avoids turning into egomania. Need a better keyboard player? He’ll just learn it front to back and become one of the premier players in world so a bridge of his sounds better. Need some strong lyrics to work with this instrumental? Here’s some of the best writing about love, literature that history’s great romantic poets couldn’t conjure up but Stevie threw together in a few hours. We’ve never seen anyone like it, and I’d bet we never will again; we all should feel fortunate that he exists in the specific ways he’s managed to.
Now that the praise of the artist is over with(it’s not), let’s get to the album itself. This was Stevie’s third album in seventeen months, a Future-esque output level that makes absolutely zero sense in any context. Stevie was a one-man band, having just gotten back to Motown after a brief contract dispute, he put out two classics in Music Of My Mind (at age twenty-one!!!!) and Talking Book, which won three Grammys and cemented him as a grown-up artist ready to move on from the boy-wonder tag. There was far more red tape than there is today, you can’t just make an album and release it whenever you want, labels were much more involved and wanted control over release dates and timing. Stevie had won some of that control back, but not all of it. Recording was also much more difficult in the early seventies. Stevie embraced innovation, but that doesn’t always speed things up, and sometimes the technology just doesn’t exist to work at the pace you’d like. Ironically, Stevie doing everything himself may have made the process move quicker, as it reduced the logistical delays that collaborators would bring on and gave Stevie the exact sound he wanted, even if it took longer to play each part one-by-one.
It should be noted that despite barely being old enough to drink, this was the halfway point of Stevie’s studio album career. He released twenty-six original albums, thirteen of which he had put out by now(My favorite Stevie fun fact is that he had released a greatest hits album when he was seventeen, and another one at twenty-one. Two greatest hits albums as a child and he hadn’t even hit the peak of his powers yet! Come on!!!) Stevie had yet to make his Magnum Opus, had yet to nab a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and hadn’t done anything that put him in a pantheon yet. He’d spent the past few years taking more risks, and while some songs were hits, there were a few duds that kept his bodies of work from really blowing people away from front to back. Innervisions represents the leap he wanted to take, a more focused project that doesn’t skimp on risks but embraces them. The grooves are sharper, the instrumentation is just absolutely ridiculous, and the writing is otherworldly for a guy who struggled in that aspect earlier in his career. Each song occupies it’s own space in the album, he pulls off the near-impossible trick of cohesion without redundancy. Let’s go song-by-song and dig into this masterpiece:
The bass on this song is just fantastic, funk was just taking hold and this riff is straight out of a James Brown/Sly Stone bassline. The little background vocal run “duhdoodoodoodoooooodoodoo” is really fun, using voices as instruments that explicitly wasn’t the norm in those days and this was a bit of a curveball for listeners at the time. For how present the bass is, it’s a pretty minimalist instrumental until the harmonica solo(you could write a whole dissertation on Stevie and his harmonica.) It’s a perfect album opener and after starting his previous two albums with “Love Having You Around” and “Sunshine of My Life”, “Too High” represents a subtler approach that hints at a more mature Stevie hoping to build up to a crescendo and properly come down(no pun intended) from there. If Stevie has a flaw, his writing can be a little heavy-handed, even preachy at times, and Too High is one where demeaning an addict didn’t hold up well as we learned more about the drug epidemic.
But there’s some BARS man, this writing is just so so good:
She’s a girl in a dream
She sees a four eyed cartoon monster on the T.V. screen
She takes another puff and says “It’s a crazy scene”
That red is green
And she’s a tangerine
There’s a quasi-movement online full of people who believe Stevie isn’t blind, and it’s not hard to understand why with imagery like that. It’s a cautionary song, and there’s some really nice hi-hats at the end to bring it home. It’s funky in it’s sound but not it’s structure, he wants to stay focused on the mission at hand and Too High does a perfect job of giving the listener the ear candy it wants while getting across that he’s coming at us a little differently this time around.
I suspect that a poll of Innervisions fans would reveal Visions as their least favorite song on the album. It’s also the centerpiece of the project in a way, and probably underrated at this point as a hopeful ballad from an artist writing on the heels of modern history’s most tumultuous decade. Stevie avoids falling totally into a “Can’t we all just get along?” diatribe, instead pondering if such peace is even possible in the first place. Interestingly, Stevie cedes guitar duties to other players on this track, a decision that works out well as the instrumental gives the listener a look into a subdued Shangri-La without taking us all the way there. The keys are played by Stevie and are predictably gorgeous, toeing a line between sadness and hope wonderfully without going overboard.
The writing is strong on this track too, a personal favorite line of mine:
I’m not one who make believes
I know that leaves are green
They only turn to brown
When autumn comes around
The criticism of the song is that it’s cliche and sleepy, a fair knock that probably wouldn’t have been if a) the album started with a little more oomph and b) there wasn’t another song like it on the album. Starting the album so slowly was a risk for Stevie, and having Visions on the same LP as All Is Fair In Love is gutsy for such a short tracklist. That being said, it’s a lovely lullaby that’s beautifully written and played, and sets the table perfectly for the ass-kicking that comes next.
Living For The City