After my brief and tragic fling with Donovan, I was desperately in need of an aural enema. I scanned my library for great records that I had missed, for music that demonstrated the spark of true creativity, for people with real talent whose albums contained no hint of sitar or harpsichord.
Stevie Wonder to the rescue!
Hard to believe, but Innervisions was Stevie’s sixteenth album. His previous effort, Talking Book, had some good stuff on it, but also contained the aesthetic flaw that marks many of his efforts: like his future collaborator on the thoroughly regrettable “Ebony and Ivory,” Stevie could pour too much saccharine on the fruit of his labors. Talking Book opens with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a wretchedly cheerful song that was likely featured at many a wedding reception for couples who would wind up screaming at each other in divorce court a few years later.
Stevie Wonder generally avoids sappiness on Innervisions by tempering that impulse with healthy doses of hard, cold social reality. A work of stunning sonic diversity, there isn’t a single track on Innervisions that you can categorize as “weak” from a musical perspective; you finish listening to one great song and goddamn if there isn’t another one following on its heels. From a purely musical perspective, Innervisions would easily make my top fifty albums list with room to spare.
It wouldn’t make my fictional top fifty list for other reasons, which shall become clear as you read further.
“Too High” kick-starts the album with medium tempo funk combined with a dazzling array of in-key and off-key ninth and thirteenth chords with a modern jazz flavor. Stevie wrote, arranged and produced all the songs on Innervisions, and here he plays all the instruments, including the drums and synth bass. It all sounds wonderful and tight under his command; later the use of electronic instruments would become standard in R&B and rob it of some of its edge . . . and eventually lead to the regimented aftertaste of rap and hip-hop. I long for a law that requires musicians to actually understand something about music before they’re allowed to play with electronic gadgets and software. Innervisions proved that Stevie Wonder knew how to handle such dangerous stuff.
While the lyrics in “Too High” have a certain flair and cheekiness, “Visions” is more direct and reflection-inspiring. By the early 70’s, the African-American community had fully realized that 1960’s civil rights legislation was only one step in a journey to achieve true freedom—that moment when “all men feel they’re truly free at last.” Stevie is disturbed by the prevailing winds of the era, sensing that in response to frustration about the lack of progress, people had begun turning inward and away from each other:
But what I’d like to know
Is could a place like this exist so beautiful
Or do we have to take our wings and fly away
To the vision in our mind?
This is a prescient observation: if there’s one thing that distinguishes today’s societies, it’s fragmentation. We’ve disconnected ourselves from the larger community and formed millions of sub-communities of people of similar interests and values. This is more true in the USA than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited in the past few years, because the poisonous political environment makes connecting to the larger community a psychological impossibility. Why immerse yourself in a toxic environment when there’s nothing you can do to stop it from going to hell in a handbasket? Stevie was talking specifically about a retreat into inner idealism, but I think the smart-ass cynicism that many Americans project in their conversations is really frustrated idealism that has no outlet in today’s hateful climate.
Stevie sings that song beautifully, but he also knows how to get down and dirty, as he does in “Living for the City.” It’s amazing that everything you hear on this track is Stevie Wonder: vocals (lead and background), drums, synth bass, Rhodes, even the hand claps. It’s amazing because you usually don’t hear a groove so alive in solo recording efforts; it’s usually stronger when the musicians feed off each other. The quiet, oscillating but thumping rhythm of the opening verse provides a perfect backdrop for Stevie to belt out a strong and defiant vocal, a defiance etched into the essence of the family he describes. It’s a defiance that says, “No matter what life throws at us, we are not going to let it get us down.”
A boy is born in hard time Mississippi
Surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty
His parents give him love and affection
To keep him strong movin’ in the right direction
Living just enough, just enough for the city
The song deals with the great migration of African-Americans from field to factory, from South to North. Though this often meant freedom from the blatant practices of the Jim Crow South, the migrant learns that a more subtle, institutional racism persists in the free states:
Her brother’s smart, he’s got more sense than many
His patience’s long but soon he won’t have any
To find a job is like a haystack needle
‘Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people
Living just enough, just enough for the city
Echoing the withdrawal theme in “Visions,” the young man has figured out that the fix is in (“He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution”). With intense passion, Stevie delivers the verse that warns of the consequences ahead for a society that refuses to change its ways:
I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel, no where could be much colder
If we don’t change, the world will soon be over
Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city
While Stevie still sings of hope, there’s also a frantic sense of urgency in his voice. He was singing these words in 1973, but the message has even more relevance in our colder, more-self absorbed present. I’m always astonished when I see this song clocks in at 7:23, because it feels like it goes by too fast. There’s not a moment in this song where the energy flags, where the groove slips or where it starts to sound repetitive. It’s a mini-masterpiece.
One great song deserves another, and the lyrical poetry of “Golden Lady” follows with its sweet, low-burn groove. Stevie sings this in a tone of respectful awe as he considers the beauty of a woman, painting strokes of rich visual texture despite his blindness. The melody is subdued and the vocal restrained, mirroring the humility in the lyrics.
God damn, there’s nothing that turns me on more than an awestruck male!
We now stumble on the defect that prevents me from including Innervisions in my mythical top fifty list: the trumpeting of Christian faith as the answer to personal and social problems. First, it comes across as an off-the-shelf remedy for “all that ails you.” Second, to imply that religion can solve the world’s problems is fundamentally illogical, as religion is responsible for more war, more violence, more hatred and more division than any other force in human history. Fortunately, the proselytizing is limited to the next two songs: “Higher Ground” and “Jesus Children of America.”
“Higher Ground” is less intrusive, rather like those Scientology pamphlets that you don’t know are Scientology pamphlets until the very last page. While you get the hint through the un-ironic use of the word “sin” midway through the song, the sales pitch doesn’t appear until the very last line: “God is gonna show you higher ground.” Until then, the lyrics are anti-war and anti-establishment, describing a litany of social problems that everyone agrees are problems. Thus, when I get to the punch line, “God is gonna show you higher ground,” I feel tricked, cheated and I want my money back.
“Jesus Children of America” is a less subtle piece of Christian propaganda that I won’t waste my time discussing. I respect an artist’s right to share his or her views, and in response I claim the right to avoid listening to those views. Thanks to iTunes, I simply delete these two songs from my Innervisions playlist and I’m a happy camper.
Stevie gets off his high horse in “All in Love is Fair,” disputing the corollary that all is fair in war and respecting the right of a lover to choose to stay or go. The lyrics are a bit awkward, but the vocal is as smooth as silk. At this point, we need something lighter to break the mood, and Stevie delivers with the fun and funky “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Starting off with a Latin rhythm providing background for a scene of linguistic and cross-cultural misunderstanding, the song glides into the main theme, an array of unexpected chord combinations that never sound disjointed or choppy. The half-step declines in the “when you get . . . ” lines always excite me because they give you the anxious feeling of metaphorically “falling” out of key for a moment to land safely on the dominant. I also love it when he belts out the melody in the higher octave in the final verse, an exhilarating expression of freedom and joy. Stevie’s on fire here, and it doesn’t get much better than this:
Innervisions comes to a close with the offhand feel and steady rhythm of “He’s Misstra Know It All,” bemoaning the true American religion of worshipping the wealthy. Stevie exposes the capitalist ethic for the fraud that it is, and you can substitute “America” for “Misstra Know-It-All” and the rest of the civilized world would respond, “Amen.”
Any place he will play
His only concern is how much you’ll
He’s Misstra Know It All
If he shakes on a bet
He’s the kind of dude that won’t pay his debt,
When you say that he’s livin’ wrong
He’ll tell you he knows he’s livin’ right
And you’d be a stronger man
If you took Misstra Know It All’s advice.
Despite the detour into preachiness, Innervisions is a vibrant musical experience with near-perfect arrangements and unexpected freshness. Stevie Wonder has always been energetic, but here he focuses his energy on the quality of the music instead of letting his exuberance get the best of him.
Hopefully, he’s also taking the cure for homophobia after his classically patronizing comments on the matter. As a half-homo non-Christian, I confess to having issues with Stevie Wonder, but I remain madly in love with Innervisions.