Although he became one of the seminal musical figures of the seventies, it was in the sixties that we were first introduced to “Little Stevie Wonder.” Like Ray Charles, Stevie was black and blind, like Michael Jackson a child star who had his first hit as a 12 year old in 1963. That song, “Fingertips, Pt. 2,” which has a great live energy (its horns really cook and Stevie’s harmonica makes you wanna move), put Stevie on the map, but he had other notable songs early on as well, though you’d have to be some sort of masochist to buy all of Stevie’s ‘60s albums. So, rather than buy the 10 or so quickly put together albums that preceded this compilation, I’d recommend just getting this one instead (unfortunately, the superior 2-cd collection Looking Back has yet to see a cd release), since it contains “Fingertips, Pt. 2” and other classic tracks like “Uptight (Everything's Alright)” and “I Was Made To Love Her.” “Uptight (Everything's Alright)” was Motown through and through, as, though he was a co-writer on the track, Stevie was still very much a part of the Motown hit making machine at this point (more on that later). Containing a great Motown groove, including upbeat, jaunty horns, “Uptight (Everything's Alright)” was undoubtedly among his signature ‘60s songs, while “I Was Made To Love Her” is all about it’s intense, defiant vocal, as Stevie was already an accomplished singer. In the ‘60s Motown didn’t always know what to do with him, at various times trying to turn him into the next Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr., but this collection mostly obscures those growing pains by focusing on 12 consistently entertaining tracks. Even so, this collection is far from perfect, as “Work Out Stevie, Work Out” and “Hey Harmonica Man” are inferior remakes of “Fingertips, Pt. 2,” and “Nothing's Too Good for My Baby” is but a pale imitation of “Uptight.” The jaunty melody on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin' in the Wind” wasn’t especially appropriate, either, but at least it was still a notable early hit, and I thoroughly enjoy “Hey Love,” a light airy ballad, “A Place In The Sun,” a moody, socially conscious sing along later covered by The Rascals, and “Contract on Love,” which offers lots of doo woppy fun despite Stevie sounding like a little kid on it. In general, what was interesting about Stevie was that, rather than being inspired by the gospel sounds of the church like most soul artists, Stevie was more into pop and jazz. Also, rather than work with the usual Motown hired guns (Norman Whitfield, Holland-Dozier-Holland, etc.), Stevie was generally paired with the lesser known but also quite talented likes of Sylvia Moy, Clarence Paul, and Henry Cosby, and as a result his work sounded little like anyone else at the label. That said, truth be told he had more misses than hits in the ‘60s, but even as a mere teenager his talents were obvious: he was already a terrific keyboard and harmonica player, as well as a proficient singer and percussionist. Anyway, even the best of his early years, covering 1963-1968 (though his debut album actually appeared in 1962), pale beside his majestic seventies peaks, but for those of you who want to start at the beginning or dig a little deeper than his best album work, this is a worthwhile release since it distills most of the high points from an inconsistent era when Stevie and his Motown cohorts were still trying to figure things out.
Signed, Sealed, and Delivered (Motown ‘70) Rating: B+
After For Once In My Life (1968) and My Cherie Amour (1969), both of which spawned major hits with their title tracks, came Signed, Sealed, and Delivered, whose title track was also a smash hit and a deserving one. Still, it was on this album that Stevie slowly but surely started to assert his independence from the Motown hit factory, as he wrote or co-wrote seven of these 12 tracks (often in collaboration with wife Syreeta Wright) and produced many of them as well. Long story short, he was starting to become an album artist as well as a hitmaker, and as such this album is consistently listenable from start to finish, though there are problems as well. For one thing, aside from the great title track, a joyously soulful r&b-based pop number with prominent female backing vocals (this was the first album with his female backup singing group Wonderlove), jaunty horns, and a more mature lyrical focus as a contrite Wonder pledges his allegiance to his wronged lover, most of the other songs here aren't all that memorable. There are some other very enjoyable tracks, though, including highlights such as "Never Had A Dream Come True," "Sugar," and "Joy (Takes Over Me)." "Never Had A Dream Come True" is notable for its catchy "doo doo doo" vocal hooks and loveable loser lyrics, "Sugar" has inventive percussion and horns, some good guitar soloing, and an impressive overall energy, while "Joy (Takes Over Me)" has a nice funky melody and another joyously passionate performance, though I wish the song was longer. Other notable tracks include a pair of cover songs, including a lively rendition of "We Can Work It Out" that's most definitely his own version even if I far prefer The Beatles' original, and "Heaven Help Us All," a big production number (written by Ron Miller) with a heavy gospel influence. Elsewhere, "You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover" saw Wonder heading towards a funkier, more groove oriented direction, though this particular effort is nothing special. The string-heavy ballad "Don't Wonder Why" is also pretty generic but pleasant enough, as some nifty harmonica work elevates it and "I Can't Let My Heaven Walk Away," on which the passion and performances are there even if the songwriting is only so-so. Actually, aside from "Joy" and "I Gotta Have A Song," whose soaring vocals make it another winner, most of the second side is comprised of listenable filler such as "Something To Say," a pleasant, low-key finale. Side one is quite good, though, and the album on the whole is well worth the time of any Wonder fan since it contains some real gems that weren't big hits and it's never less than reliably entertaining. He wasn't quite there yet, as most of these songs could be a bit hookier and several could be said to suffer from over-production (i.e. syrupy strings), but as a transitional effort on which Wonder was branching beyond the successful but limiting confines of "the Motown sound," Signed, Sealed, Delivered was an unqualified success that set the stage for much greater successes.
Where I'm Coming From (Motown ‘71) Rating: B+
This overlooked album is hard to find these days, and it's another transitional album on the way to more substantial things. Though the brassy Blood, Sweat and Tears/Chicago-influenced "If You Really Love Me" was another lively top 10 hit, most of this album saw Stevie in an extremely eclectic, more experimental mood. You see, there was a clause in Stevie's contract that enabled him to void his Motown contract when he turned 21, and with that date fast approaching Stevie used his leverage to make the album he wanted, with minimal interference from the label. As a result, Stevie co-wrote (with wife/lyricist Syreeta Wright), performed (with help from The Funk Brothers and string orchestras), and produced all of these songs, many of which are quite atypical in nature. For example, the sparse "Look Around" features a lone harpsichord (I think) and his voice and is extremely downcast, as is the pained albeit lovely ballad "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer." Elsewhere, the enjoyably funky, Sly Stone influenced "Do Yourself A Favor" features the futuristic clavinet synthesizers that would soon become such a huge part of his sound, but much of the album is comprised of lushly orchestrated ballads with classical arrangements. Some of these songs haven't aged especially well, most obviously the novelty-ish "I Wanna Talk To You," and the sequencing is at times problematic, as "Thing Of Me As Your Soldier" and "Something Out Of The Blue" should've been spaced further apart given how similar they are to one another. Then again, some of the atypical attempts are quite enjoyable, such as "Take Up A Course In Happiness," with its upbeat, densely packed (lush strings, hooky horns, etc.) shuffle groove, and "Sunshine In Their Eyes," which features female and children backing vocals and builds nicely during its epic 7-minute duration. Unsurprisingly, there is a thematic unity to many of these songs, the main topic being Wonder's relationship with Wright (obviously theirs was a true partnership, though it would prove to be short-lived), but social commentary and the war in Vietnam were also becoming more prominent topics as Wonder sought to become a full-fledged, fully autonomous artist like his friend Marvin Gaye. Although Stevie's attempts to stretch out, both figuratively and literally as the album features longer songs and less of them, yields erratic results, the hits outnumber the misses and even the misses are generally more interesting than the lesser Motown-by-numbers mediocrities of his earlier assembly line albums. A new day was dawning...
Music Of My Mind (Motown ‘72) Rating: A-
As previously noted, when Stevie turned 21 his Motown contract ran out, and though he felt loyalty towards Motown, he didn't re-sign with them until they not only upped the ante monetarily but also gave him full artistic control of his albums, which was quite a concession for the label at that time. Of course, Stevie would prove to be well worth the investment, though not at first as Music Of My Mind spawned no major hits and was something of a commercial disappointment. It is a very good album, though, and is now seen as being the first of the five successive albums on which his reputation primarily rests, at least the good part of his reputation, anyway. Wonder plays everything on all but two tracks; Art Baran adds a trombone solo to "Love Having You Around" and Buzzy Feiton adds some tasty jazz guitar to "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)," otherwise it's all Stevie, all the time. As if to announce that things would be different from now on, those same first two tracks, "Love Having You Around" and "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)," ambitiously run on for 7:26 and 8:07, respectively. With a big assist from producers Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, two key contributors to Wonder's classic period, Music From My Mind was his first album to prominently feature the futuristic sounds of the clavinet synthesizer, which would not only dominate his sound but the '70s funk and fusion movements in general. Songs such as "Love Having You Around" and "Keep On Running" are long, repetitive, but quite funky synth-led jams, though these songs and perhaps a couple of others last well past what their expiration dates should've been. The album has other problems as well. For example, the vocoder enhanced vocals that occasionally appear may have sounded cutting edge back then, but they sound like a cheesy, dated gimmick now, and lyrically Wonder (now the primary lyricist, though Syreeta co-authors one song and Yvonne Wright assists on two) seems confused. On one hand, songs such as the blatantly commercial, warmly upbeat sing along “I Love Everything About You,” “Happier Than The Morning Sun,” a rare guitar-led song that exudes a lovely, low-key Sunday morning type of vibe, and “Seems So Long,” another pure pop ballad with wonderful vocals, are breathtaking ballads that seem true to what Wonder is all about. Elsewhere, however, songs such as "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)," the so-so “Sweet Little Thing,” and "Keep On Running" see Stevie adopting a macho persona that's at odds with the Stevie we've come to know and the Stevie that appears on the rest of the album. Hearing Stevie sing "don't make me get mad and act like a nigger" on “Sweet Little Thing” is shocking, to put it mildly, and not in a good way, though fortunately the lovely melody of "Superwoman" still wins out despite some regrettably sexist lyrics, and "Keep On Running" has quite the nice extended groove even if its stalker lyrics are unsettling. On the plus side, in addition to this albums pioneering use of electronics and some stellar songs that demonstrate Stevie's increasingly diverse musicality, his smooth but soulful, much multi-tracked vocals are more confident and expressive than ever. Ending with a bang, the gospel-tinged "Evil," the only overtly religious song on the album, has an epic, majestic feel. As if to further demonstrate the conflicted nature of this album, which is mostly excellent musically but which sometimes lacks a solid emotional core, the song ends suddenly, purposely, with the following devastating denouement: "sweet love, all alone, an outcast of the world."
Talking Book (Motown ‘72) Rating: A+
This utterly brilliant, hugely successful album practically screams "creative growth," as Wonder really comes into his own on his first masterpiece. Wisely ditching his cad persona and returning to the Stevie we can all get 100% behind, this album seems more personal and heartfelt than Music Of My Mind, and as such it connects more directly on an emotional level. The music is more succinct, accessible, and inventive as well, starting off with the massive #1 hit “Sunshine Of My Life,” one of several jazzy pop ballads and an instant standard. Sure, its sentiments may be clichéd and corny to some, but it has such a likeable innocence and boasts such a marvelous melody that it's almost beyond reproach as a pure pop song. Interestingly, Jim Gilstrap and Gloria Barley sing the first stanza, almost as if Stevie was announcing right away that he was going to keep listeners on their toes, or perhaps he was just reinforcing to his bosses that he could now do whatever he damn well wanted? Anyway, given that its lyrics of betrayal are at odds with "Sunshine," it seems fitting that “Maybe Your Baby” sees Stevie in hard funk mode, with wailing guitar from Ray Parker Jr. throughout and oddly processed vocals, in direct contrast to the purity of the previous song. Perhaps the song runs a little too long (6:49), but that's the only such case on the album, and "You And I" is another lovely, uplifting ("you and I, in my mind we can conquer the world") ballad, this one slow and sparse but perfectly polished. The melodic, lightly funky “Tuesday Afternoon” is a lesser effort I'd call pleasant filler, while "You've Got It Bad Girl" closes the lesser first side with a jazzy, seductive ballad. Whereas side one contained strong and even spectacular songs, it played like a collection of unrelated songs, which is far from the case on side two, which is strengthened as a result of its thematic unity. Then again, even if it had no lyrics the monstrous funk of "Superstition" (written for Jeff Beck but taken back when Stevie realized it was too good to give away), also a #1 hit, would've still been a monumental track, and "Big Brother" continues with a similarly distrustful attitude, this time towards politicians. Musically, the song's folksy melody is atypical, and his harmonica playing returns to a place of prominence, that instrument having been recently downplayed in favor of newer toys such as Arp and Moog synthesizers in addition to his beloved clavinet. Closing with a flourish, the last three songs comprise a fascinating mini-suite. "Blame It On The Sun" is a mournful, moody ballad whose lyrics, written by Syreeta, address their then-failing marriage. Rather than point fingers, Syreeta wisely comes to the conclusion that it was nobody's fault, that it simply wasn't meant to be. Syreeta also writes the lyrics to the jazzy “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love,” on which a new day is dawning, as neither Stevie or Syreeta were the type of people to stay down for long. See, unlike too much of Music, you can really identify and sympathize with these people, and it doesn't hurt that Jeff Beck adds a marvelously lyrical guitar solo, either. Coming full circle from the downcast "Blame It On The Sun," the anthemic, gloriously uplifting grand finale, “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever),” with lyrics this time written by Yvonne Wright, is an amazingly spiritual and heartfelt love song led by Stevie’s soaring vocals. Brilliantly used at the close of the movie High Fidelity, this just might be my favorite Stevie Wonder song; how can you not feel great after hearing that? Anyway, despite some bumps along the way, that incredible "feel good" finale is what lingers with me most when I think about Talking Book, the album that began in earnest the purple patch of recorded music for which Stevie is justifiably legendary.
Innervisions (Motown ‘73) Rating: A+
Stevie’s most conceptually effective album is also probably his best since its songs are as wonderful and unique as the tracks on Talking Book but seem to belong together more. Like all the truly great albums, Innervisions adds up to far more than the sum of its individual parts, and the album has several notable attributes. For one thing, Stevie writes all the lyrics for the first time, and for inspiration he looks outward rather than inward this time as, obviously influenced by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie comments on the social ills of America. The album also has a more consistent production style, increasingly varied vocals as “Little Stevie Wonder” was now a distant memory, and more of a percussive presence as Innervisions features Wonder’s most impressive drumming performance. There are still some dated synth sounds here and there, as the clavinet is again extremely prominent, but overall it’s hard to find much fault with the album, which was another unqualified masterpiece as Stevie was on an unstoppable roll. As for the individual songs, “Too High” starts things off with funky yet jazzy song that warns against the dangers of drug use, while the sparse ballad “Visions” describes a Martin Luther King-like dream along with lovely guitar and warm keyboards. Plus, his expert use of adding space between the notes, of letting the song breathe, further underscores his ever-increasing understanding of songwriting and production techniques. “Living For The City” is nothing less than an epic (7:24) masterpiece whose gritty hard funk is perfectly matched to lyrics that vividly describe inner city struggles. The song is also notable for Stevie’s expressive vocals, but he then turns down the vocal histrionics on “Golden Lady,” a straightforward pop ballad with another stellar melody. Next up is “Higher Ground,” another monumental funk manifesto that hit #4 on the charts and was later eventfully covered by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This song and the next one, “Jesus Children Of America” are spiritually themed, but though their thematic linkages strengthens the album on the whole, the latter tune is the only one here that I’d deem expendable, though this slow building, gospel influenced song is still solid. Though I don’t 100% agree with Stevie’s message (common decency and honor should count as well), “All In Love Is Fair” works well as both a dramatic declaration and a lovely silken ballad, while “Don’t Worry ‘Bout A Thing” is a gracious goodbye to Syreeta that urges her (and no doubt himself) to move on, accompanied by another superb melody. Finally, though it’s far from the slam-bang finale of “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever),” “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” provides an effective close to this indomitable classic with a melody that’s so simple and effective that you barely even notice the song's pointed lyrics.
Fulfillingness’ First Finale (Motown ‘74) Rating: A
After Innervisions, Stevie suffered a near fatal car crash, after which he briefly lapsed into a coma. Unsurprisingly, upon coming to, his next album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, featured a less joyous, more somber overall tone. It’s still a great album, but it's more of a mood album whose individual songs don't stand out as much. The overall sound is more stripped down, with less clavinet and more low-key, warmly inviting keyboards and piano, plus a healthy sprinkling of harmonica (which is always welcome where Stevie is concerned), and the lyrics are wider ranging and lack the thematic unity of Innervisions. Still, this album isn't far below his recent high standards, and there are some up-tempo tracks, including “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” a gurgling synthesizer groovefest that's crammed with interesting details, and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” a funky horn ensconced feast that perhaps recalls "Superstition" a tad too closely. Surprisingly, it was a #1 hit at the time, surprising because you almost never hear it today, as perhaps its topical Richard Nixon bashing lyrics make it dated in a way that his other popular hits aren't. Elsewhere, the album relies mostly on mid-tempo ballads, but again tracks such as "Smile Please," "Too Shy To Say," and "They Won't Go When I Go," the bleak latter song again featuring lyrics written by Syreeta's sister Yvonne, are more mood pieces than anything else. Fortunately, they're good mood pieces, and the totally gorgeous “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” and the dreamy "Creepin," featuring backing vocals from Minnie Ripperton (of "Lovin' You" fame), are among his very best songs. On “Creepin’” Stevie seems to be trying to convince himself that “love is so amazing,” but for my money “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” is the album's piece-de-resistance, and it's but one example of how female backing vocalists play a major role on the album. Maybe it's me, but the women seem to be trying to lift Stevie’s spirits up throughout the album; I'm not sure if it worked, but they rarely fail to lift my spirits on songs such as the brightly poppy "Bird Of Beauty" and the gospel-influenced "Please Don't Go," another top-notch album closer that manages to be uplifting despite its desperate, pleading lyrics. Still, on the whole this album is more reserved than the previous two, and Stevie sounds tired at times, albeit fittingly so given the album's darker, less pop friendly overall mood. It may not be quite up to the level of Talking Book or Innervisions, but few works are, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale still stands tall as an extremely impressive work that’s a minor classic in its own right. Amazingly, that same year Stevie also co-composed Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, the best solo album by ex-wife Syreeta, which fans of Wonder would do well to seek out. All in all, 1974 was a pretty productive year for a guy fresh out of a coma.
Songs In The Key Of Life (Motown ‘76) Rating: A
An often-brilliant example of the fecundity of Wonder’s flourishing imagination, this stuffed double cd set was the culmination of Wonder’s golden era. Less focused and not nearly as consistent as Talking Book and Innervisions, this album nevertheless features several of Wonder’s best and best-loved songs, making it almost as essential. The overall mood of the album is extremely optimistic, joyous even, as Stevie had obviously overcome whatever malaise had stricken him during the making of Fulfillingness' First Finale. Musically, the album is all over the place, as diversity is the name of the game. Of course, some attempts work better than others, but even the more filler-ish tracks are generally interesting, and the incredible overall variety of the album greatly adds to the overall experience, which is flat-out entertaining. Wonder is aided by working with several collaborators (such as Calvin Hardaway and Gary Byrd) and a multitude of guest musicians; his use of a real live backing band (which included future "Maniac" Michael Sembello) gives these tracks a spark and a spontaneity not found in his recent work, stellar though it still was. The album starts with the simple but heartfelt message of “Love’s In Need On Love Today,” which builds impressively over its 7+ minute duration and features typically great vocals from Stevie. After that ambitious introduction comes the strangely funky "Have A Talk With God" before the heavily orchestrated, almost classical "Village Ghetto Land" leads into the fusion-based "Contusion," on which Sembello's lead guitar occupies center stage. Next up are a pair of classic tunes and #1 hits, "Sir Duke" and "I Wish," the former a snazzy horn-heavy, up-tempo tribute to big band jazz masters, particularly Duke Ellington, the latter a slick but funky workout that nostalgically looks back at his lost childhood. I could continue, but doing a song-by-song rundown of this album is kind of pointless; I just wanted to detail some of the album's mind-boggling diversity, which elsewhere on side one includes a real gem of a ballad ("Knocks Me Off My Feet"), the memorably moody "Pastime Paradise," later copped by rapper Coolio for his massively popular "Gangsta's Paradise" single, and a pair of lightly enjoyable pop songs ("Summer Soft," "Ordinary Pain"). Of course, "Ordinary Pain" isn't only that, for it's really two songs in one, its second half being more jam-based and isn't even sung by Wonder, who seemed willing to try anything on this album. Such ambitiousness has its plusses but also its minuses, and disc two is less impressive on the whole, as several extended endings feel like padding to fill out a double album. Plus, Wonder's pretensions sometimes get the better of him, and most of these instances are on this disc, which nevertheless has its fair share of highlights. Though dangerously close to the corny easy listening schmaltz that would mar too much of his later career (“Ebony and Ivory” anyone?), “Isn’t She Lovely” is one of his most popular songs for good reason, as it's an upbeat pop marvel on which you can feel Stevie's joy at his newfound fatherhood. Plus, it has a rare extended harmonica solo and is notable for that reason alone, even if said solo overstays its welcome. The other highlight on disc two, which contains a mere seven long songs (excluding the four song A Something's Extra Bonus EP that is appended to most copies of the album), is "As," a moody up-tempo jazz number with prominent backing vocals and a finger snapping beat. But that's enough about individual songs, as this album was meant to work as an overall statement, one whose overall message seems to be to love: ourselves, one another, and God. All things considered, the album's positive vibes and dazzling diversity can't help but impress, as this often-superb self-contained package provided an exclamation point to a sustained period of musical excellence.
Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants (Motown ‘79) Rating: B-
If I thought Fulfillingness’ First Finale was a mood piece, how the heck am I supposed to review this? Well, I suppose some background information is in order first. Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants was a soundtrack album to a documentary film, The Secret Life Of Plants, that very few people actually saw. So, after waiting three long years for the follow-up album to Songs In The Key Of Life, needless to say the fans and critics were confounded by this release. However, with the passage of time and the tempering of expectations, this album is less harshly viewed today, and I’d say that it’s best not to consider this the true follow-up to Songs at all, but rather an experimental diversion from his more typical fare. Fact is, much of this mostly-mellow, approximately half-instrumental album works best as background music, and some of these songs are meant to be accompanied by visuals that you obviously can’t see. As such, this album was intended for a limited audience, but such was Wonder’s reputation at the time that the album still hit #4 on the charts, though it soon slid down once word of its contents spread around. Supposedly this album featured the first use of a digital sampling synthesizer, the Computer Music Melodian, but that’s not really important today beyond noting that it is very synth-heavy and dense with layered instrumentation. In fact, it’s often hard to pick out which instruments are playing what, and the songs are rather hit-and-miss as well, a few sounding like doodle-like sketches while others are not wholly satisfying genre exercises (classical, Indian, African). “Race Babbling,” a failed 9-minute disco attempt, is probably the album's biggest miss, but fortunately there’s plenty of good music here as well, even if finding it is a patience tester. Songs such as “Power Flower” and “Outside My Window” are perfectly pleasant if insubstantial, while “Come Back As A Flower” is a charmingly girlish Syreeta showcase and “A Seed’s A Star/Tree Medley” is a more successful disco effort. Still, there’s no denying that the latter two songs in particular have a limited appeal from a lyrical perspective, and the album’s lone hit, “Send One Your Love,” is the type of cloyingly sentimental fluff that would soon give way to some truly abominable creations best exemplified by “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Given that, I actually prefer the wholly enjoyable instrumental version of the song that’s also included; elsewhere, “Finale,” whose 7-minutes at times approaches a prog-like level of elaborateness, is indeed a grand finale. So, as you can tell, there are rewards to be had for the patient listeners among you, but all these years later there’s still no getting around the fact that this ranks as one of the more bizarre albums from any major artist. Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants may be a botanist's delight, but it’s too often perplexing for everyone else.
Hotter Than July (Motown ‘80) Rating: B+
I suppose that this should be considered the proper follow-up to Songs, and it is a far more approachable album than Journey even as it fails to scale the same heights as his classic mid-70s work. Part of the problem is in the sterile, cold ‘80s-styled production, replete with drum machines, but the songs themselves are also more straightforward and less creative on the whole. It’s still a good album, though, one that’s notable for its increased use of lead guitar, horn heavy theatrics, and its emphasis on up-tempo dance funk workouts such as “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” and “Do Like You.” Both of these songs are solidly energetic and enjoyable but don’t rise above “solid album track” status, a description that would also apply to “As If You Read My Mind,” a jumpy groover that only really takes flight on Stevie’s harmonica solo. Interestingly enough, the first half of this album is comprised of love themed songs, while the second half, aside from “Lately,” is concerned with political issues. “Lately” and “Rocket Love” are the only full-fledged ballads on the album, and both are classy, old school pop ballads as Stevie was moving into a more straightforward pop direction on his ballad material. Fortunately, though neither song is a great composition, both songs feature strong performances, particularly in the vocal department as Stevie was by now fully established as a great singer who could generally elevate even the most mediocre material. Anyway, the highlight of side one for me is “All I Do (Is Think About You),” an old song originally written by Stevie, Morris Broadnax, and Clarence Paul for Tammi Terrell that contains warm keyboard tones and a warmly inviting chorus that's aided by backing support from Michael Jackson and TSOP. Also notable is “I ‘Aint Gonna Stand For It,” which contains melodic verses and a more up-tempo chorus; this one is pretty cool and at times quite humorous. As for side two, “Cash In Your Face” is a preachy, overly obvious tale about housing discrimination that, like “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” has a dated quality since it’s not such a hot button issue anymore, plus from a musical standpoint both songs are inferior rewrites of "Superstition." Much better is “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a rare reggae excursion that effectively pays tribute to Bob Marley. A #5 hit, this track was certainly a better genre exercise than those offered on Journey, plus it was a far more effective tribute song than “Same Old Story,” that albums boring ode to botanist John Washington Carver. Last but not least is “Happy Birthday,” another tribute/political song that’s the album’s high point along with “All I Do (Is Think About You)” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’).” Wonder was always very vocal about his desire to have Martin Luther King’s birthday recognized as a national holiday, and this catchy, upbeat sing along anthem was his none-too-subtle attempt to do his part (mission since accomplished). Anyway, as previously noted, this is a good album whose main problem, aside from some so-so songwriting instances and dated production techniques, is that it simply pales in comparison to Wonder’s albums from his golden era (1972-1976). As for the rest of his discography, he's done some decent stuff along with a fair amount of disposable fluff in the almost 30 unprolific years since Hotter Than July was released (it’s 2007 as I write these reviews), but the albums reviewed on this website are the ones for which Wonder will be long remembered.
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