AGAINST THE GRAIN #2: Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

It pains me to do this as I’m a huge fan of “classic period” Stevie, and it can’t be denied that this album does indeed contain a substantial portion of his all-time finest material. Unfortunately neither of these things can change the fact that there’s an awful lot of shit on here as well. Boring, boring shit. And it really kind of ruins the whole thing. This so easily could have been one of the greatest albums of all time, in fact when you consider just how many astoundingly great songs there are on here (and there are plenty), you realise that it’s actually quite an achievement that he’s managed to make it all such a chore to listen to. 

This is a classic case of the sprawling, over-indulgent double album that, with a little trimming, could have made an absolute beast of a single album. Hell there’s so much material here (including an EP tacked on at the end), that it could even have made a beast of a double album. But instead it’s just a monumental bore.

Why then is it unanimously hailed as Stevie’s crowning achievement? His magnum opus, his chef-d’oeuvre? Why is it consistently ranked near the top of all those “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” lists? Why is it George Michael’s favourite album ever? Why is Elton John always “left in awe” after he listens to it? Why? Why? WHY???

Have these people never endured the 6 minute, 30 second yawnfest that is “Joy Inside My Tears”? Have they never found themselves listening to the tedious “Black Man” wondering just when the fuck it’s going to end? Have they never listened to the tepid “Have a Talk with God” and found themselves thinking “what a piece of shit”?

The list goes on.

It’s symptomatic of a brilliant artist reaching the absolute zenith of his creativity and getting completely carried away by the intoxicating rush of ideas and inspiration that just keeps on flowing. The artist accumulates an abundance of material and falls in love with every last bit of it, everything is deemed to be gold and therefore nothing can be cut. Concepts such as “restraint”, “critical distance”, and “quality control” go out the window. Shame.

Part of what made Stevie’s previous four albums so great was the sense of balance that they all have. They’re all bursting with ideas and creativity but everything’s kept in check, nothing is given precedence over anything else. If there is social commentary then there will also be a beautiful melody, if there is virtuoso musicianship then there will also be passionate emotional sincerity. Also on these albums, the tracks are sequenced in such a way that there’s a flow and a pulse, they never drag or lose focus. And significantly, all of the songs last exactly as long as they need to. With SITKOL however, this balance is drastically upset. A lot of the songs go on too long, the sequencing is all over the place, and some of the tracks just don’t have a lot going for them. “Black Man” for example, takes just one simple idea and drags it out for about 6 hours. The message of the song is that throughout history there have been many great men and women of colour. OK fine, that’s a good point that needs to be addressed, particularly in a society plagued by prejudice and discrimination, but it’s not enough to carry an entire song (especially a very long one), and there’s simply nothing else of interest here. It’s as though he was so intent on delivering a scathing slice of social commentary that he completely forgot to write a decent melody or, you know, a bit of variation over the 8 and a half minutes. And the way he delivers the message is also very uninspired, he literally just lists a load of achievements from history and makes sure to note that each was done by a black person (or a yellow person or a brown person etc.), believe me it soon gets tiring.

Good sequencing can save an album. Even if an album has some lesser material on it (which pretty much all of them do), then it can be saved by integrating the lesser material with the really good stuff in such a way that the lesser material no longer feels like lesser material. Unfortunately the sequencing of this album has the opposite effect. The shitty songs actually manage to suck the life and enjoyment out of some of the better songs. “Isn’t She Lovely” for example is a good song, but it’s rather long and somewhat uneventful, this isn’t a problem in itself because it’s just a simple and pleasant celebration of his baby daughter and it has some beautiful harmonica playing. The problem is that this song is followed by a succession of other songs that are also long and uneventful, but shit as well, and so “Isn’t She Lovely” is absorbed into the quagmire of tedium. “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” may or may not be a good song, I literally can’t tell because it follows “Joy Inside My Tears” and “Black Man”, and so by the time it comes on my brain has been stupefied and my critical capacities diminished. If it is a good song then you can blame the sequencing of the album for making it utterly forgettable. What I do know is that it doesn’t change the pace or shake things up in any way so it merely serves to prolong the inertia.

Similar sequencing problems plague the first side of the album also. “Love’s in Need of Love Today” is also somewhat long and uneventful but it’s justified by some beautiful gospel choir backing, and Stevie’s mellifluous address to the audience, as he takes on the persona of “the friendly announcer”. “Have a Talk with God” then comes along and does nothing whatsoever to shake things up. Also it’s about talking to God. Then “Village Ghetto Land”, which is a gorgeous song in it’s own right, here just continues the cumbersome pacing set in motion by the previous tracks. Finally it loses all focus and direction with the bizarre and slightly off-sounding instrumental “Contusion”, (which I actually quite like if I listen to it on it’s own). “Sir Duke” eventually kicks things into gear with its infectious beat and chirpy horn section but it’s too late to save the album. Far too late. The poor sequencing is compounded by the fact that “Sir Duke”, the most upbeat and out-and-out enjoyable track on the album, is immediately followed by “I Wish”, the second most upbeat and out-and-out enjoyable track on the album. Talk about blowing your load. These tracks are the two most potent weapons that could have been deployed in the sequencing in order to break up the monotony, and yet here they are, carelessly dumped next to each other willy-nilly. Sigh.

The annoying thing is that I can’t simply recommend that people give this album a miss. It’s absolutely an essential purchase because it contains such earth shatteringly good material as “Pastime Paradise”, “Ordinary Pain”, “As”, “Another Star”, “Ebony Eyes” etc. etc. No, unfortunately I’m forced to encourage you to buy this album immediately if you don’t already own it because it is indeed quintessential Stevie. And who knows, you may even enjoy it! Everyone else seems to.

Thankfully, in this digital age of ours, we need no longer be ruled by the tyranny of the tracklist. Now that we are free to create our own playlists and rip and burn our own CDs, bad album sequencing is not an issue. And so I present to you my abridged and slightly rearranged version of Songs in the Key of Life (not including the additional EP):

  1. Love’s in Need of Love Today
  2. Sir Duke
  3. Village Ghetto Land
  4. Knocks Me off My Feet
  5. Pastime Paradise
  6. Ordinary Pain
  7. If It’s Magic
  8. Isn’t She Lovely
  9. I Wish
  10.  Summer Soft
  11. As
  12. Another Star

Now that is one of the greatest albums of all time.

It should be noted that Stevie Wonder nearly didn’t make this album, or any more music at all. By the end of 1975 he was seriously considering quitting the music industry to live in Ghana and care for disabled children. He was disgusted at the way his country was being run and he wanted out. This would have been a very brave move and an admirable demonstration of practicing what one preaches. But obviously he didn’t do it. No, he stayed in America, continued to make music and got very rich. Would it have been better if he’d gone to Africa? It takes a lot of guts to leave behind the comfort and familiarity of a steady and reliable source of income. Sure the world would have been denied some of the greatest music ever written, but Stevie would have been following his heart and acting with integrity. And there’s also the fact that it would have prevented the inevitable artistic decline and eventual stagnation that probably followed this release. (I’ve not actually heard any of his stuff after this album but I am aware that in 2003 he “collaborated” with boy band Blue. So presumably the intervening years chart a gradual, tragic descent into irrelevance and artistic bankruptcy).

So enjoy this album for what it is, a terribly sequenced collection of some of the greatest music ever written. (And some shit as well).

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About Andy Howlett

I make films and shit with Deadly Serious Productions. Here they are: www.deadlyseriousproductions.co.uk
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