SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life – Speakers Corner
Published on September 13, 2011
Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life – Tamla/Motown Records/Speakers Corner Records 06007 5303833 180 gram audiophile vinyl (2 discs, plus a 7” EP disc), 142:40 *****:
(Produced, arranged and composed by Stevie Wonder; featuring George Benson – guitar, vocals, Herbie Hancock – keyboards; and many others)
Steveland Hardaway Morris (better known as Stevie Wonder), was already signed to Motown Records when he exploded on the music scene in 1963. A live recording of “Fingertips Pt. 2”, featuring “Little” Stevie Wonder on harmonica, electrified the music world. It turned out that this phenomenally talented youngster could sing, play piano and compose. Like Ray Charles before him, blindness was never a hindrance. As a Motown artist, Wonder created a series of successful singles and albums. With each ensuing project, his collective role as composer and artist in control increased.
In the early seventies, the social aspects of music emerged. Motown artist, Marvin Gaye raised the bar with the unforgettable “What’s Going On” album. Wonder embarked on a series of projects that elevated him to legendary status. Talking Book, released in 1972 features the No. 1 hit single, “Superstition”. The song became iconic for the impressive hook-driven lead on the Hohner Clavinet keyboard. Political, social and personal themes permeated the songwriting. The following release, Innervisions, continued with superior production and contemporary narratives. By 1976, Wonder had evolved into a transformative musical artist whose instrumental and compositional acuity blossomed.
Songs In The Key Of Life, considered by many to be Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece, was released and received three Grammys including Album Of The Year. Of greater note is the unbridled ambition of this venture. With songs mostly composed, produced, arranged and performed by the artist, he created a symphonic mosaic of expression. Within the two LPs and one EP are brilliant indelible songs. The use of synthesizers and exultant vocal arrangements is mesmerizing. Highlights are almost too numerous to detail. The opening track, “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is a lyrical, heartfelt reflection on the human condition. The gospel harmonies are irresistible and his singing is expressive. Use of a repeat chorus (also used on Talking Book’s “I Believe When I Fall In Love /It Will Be Forever”) is hypnotic and emotional. The celebration of his daughter’s birth is presented with pop-infused tempo on “Isn’t She Lovely”. Signature chromatic harmonica riffs inspire the jam. A stunning duet with voice and synthesizer bring a classical aesthetic to counter the gritty narrative of “Village Ghetto Land”. Ballads like “As”, “Joy Inside My Tears” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet” are suffused by his versatile, elegant singing.
There are moments of utter brilliance in many of the up tempo songs. “Sir Duke” pays homage to the great big band artists (Ellington, Basie, Miller, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald) with funky horn choruses. Wonder reinvents rhythm and blues grooves with the keyboard lead on “I Wish” The recounting of childhood is timeless and doubles a one of the best dance songs of all time.
On a serious note, “Black Man” imparts a lesson (“…this world was made for all men…”) grounded in a pulsating tempo. Layered synthesizers approximate a full sound. The call and response spoken parts are both inspiring and chilling. “Pastime Paradise” (later sampled by rap star Coolio as “Gangsta’s Paradise”) utilizes synthesized strings and Middle Eastern percussion to coalesce the complicated, universal themes that inhabit his world. Wonder’s intellectual curiosity and spiritual musings push the barriers of his art. “Ngiculela/Es Una Historia/I am Singing” is performed in Zulu, Spanish and English. There is superfluous material (on the EP), but the scope of this album is so expansive, it hardly matters.
The re-mastering to audiophile vinyl enhances the sonic quality of the music. The overdubbed synthesizers and blended vocals are captured with fluidity and deep tones. Minor details like intricate percussion and individual keyboard pieces are not lost in the mix. The packaging is high quality and simple in design. An informative twenty-four page booklet will delight trivia seekers. For anyone considering a foray into audiophile vinyl (or for those wishing to add to their collection) Songs In The Key Of Life is as good as it gets!
Side One: Love’s In Need Of Love Today; Have A Talk With God; Village Ghetto Land; Contusion;
Side Two: I Wish; Knocks Me Off My Feet; Pastime Paradise; Summer Soft; Ordinary Pain
Side Three: Isn’t She Lovely; Joy Inside My Tears; Black Man
Side Four: Ngiculela-Es Una Historia; I Am Singing If It’s Magic; As; Another Star
A Something’s Extra (Bonus Record):
Side One: Saturn; Ebony Eyes
Side Two: All-Day Sucker; Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)