Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Release Date: September 28, 1976

Produced by Stevie Wonder

Side One: Love's in Need of Love Today; Have a Talk With God; Village Ghetto Land; Contusion; Sir Duke

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

Songs in the Key of Life was the culmination of a succession of Stevie Wonder albums that earned critical and popular acclaim during the mid 1970s.

The album begins with "Love's in Need of Love Today," a song desperately needed in 2020 but anytime really, an anthem against hate and bitterness. A seven minute track full of rich harmony and prescient sentiments. The spiritual and wonderfully "Have a Talk With God" also speaks to loneliness and feeling overwhelmed. "Village Ghetto Land" paints a grim portrait of the inner city, one of starvation, violence, and grief. It's a vision of a place without love. "Contusion" is an instrumental track that serves as a nice interlude into "Sir Duke." A celebration of music as a universal language of hope, Wonder also pays tribute to musicians of the past, "Sir Duke" was Duke Ellington. Driven by horns and Wonder's stirring vocal, the song is an expression of pure joy.

Side two starts out with "I Wish" which recalls Stevie's trouble making days from childhood. Although he gave adults a hard time and realizes it was wrong, it sure was "outta sight" at the time and asks, "Why did those days ever have to go?" "Knocks Me Off My Feet" is a straight up love song that builds up with more stirring harmonies. The influential "Pastime Paradise" looks at the world and laments how many would prefer to live in the past. But many also live in a future paradise, imagining and working towards a better world. "Summer Soft" goes through the cycle of the year through the lens of heartbreak and how the seasons influence our moods. "Ordinary Pain" begins as typically male point of view broken heart lament, but then breaks into funk driven response from the female perspective sung by Shirley Brewer with some harsh truths about the man's wrong headed expectations about the relationship, "go tell your sad sob story."

"Isn't She Lovely" was written for Wonder's young daughter Aisha and instantly become a pop standard. "Joy Inside My Tears" is a soulful that turns into an extended jam of gratefulness. "Black Man" is another song with a progressive message, a call for a more inclusive history, reminding all to remember the accomplishments of all cultures and races throughout history. 

"Ngiculela" is sung in Spanish, Zulu, and English. Like "Love's in Need of Love" the song imagines world harmony set to a catchy calypso beat. "If It's Magic" is almost minimal with a spare arrangement of a harmonica and harp. "As" is a seven minute track celebrating unconditional love that evolves into celebratory encapsulation of all the themes of joy, peace, and understanding on the record. The exuberant final track "Another Star" topped Disco and Easy Listening Charts and lets the album fade out on a mellow note. 

Songs in the Key of Life demands repeated plays. It's melodic production and poignant themes are timeless. It's upbeat, but never shies away from reality or falls into a false optimism. The music never sounds dated, sounding more vibrant than ever. 

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