Friday, March 7, 2014

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

  1. Love's In Need Of Love Today
  2. Have A Talk With God
  3. Village Ghetto Land
  4. Contusion
  5. Sir Duke
  6. I Wish
  7. Knocks Me Off My Feet
  8. Pastime Paradise
  9. Summer Soft
  10. Ordinary Pain
  11. Isn't She Lovely
  12. Joy Inside My Tears
  13. Black Man
  14. Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing
  15. If It's Magic
  16. As
  17. Another Star

No other artist has the effect on me that Stevie Wonder does. He's unique amongst musicians as far as I'm concerned because there's nobody else who can provide such extreme reactions in during the course of one album.

There are moments on Songs in the Key of Life that I genuinely can't stand. The album opens with Love's in Need of Love Today which is Wonder at his most syrupy and tedious. It's a seven minute plod down the middle of the road and easy listens its way through a run time which is both boring and irritating in equal measures. I've often wondered how someone like Hendrix could choke on his own vomit but listening to Loves' in Need of Love today I think I finally understand. It's a track that is capable of sending you to sleep while forcing you to propel your lunch at the same time. Hendrix probably got to about the five minute mark before his brain shut down and his stomach went into eject mode. It's possible this song killed Jimi.

A few songs later, Wonder manages to create a similar effect with Village Ghetto Land which is just a tuneless list of complaints about ghetto life (apparently people are eating dog food) sung over a string section who sound like they're trying to work out what happened to the rest of the band (they were probably sitting around saying "Dog food? Really? Dog Food?") It's terrible stuff as is If It's Magic which features nothing but Wonder's vocals accompanied by a harpist playing every cliche her instrument has to offer.

If the entire album was like the opening few tracks I'd be howling with complaint and shedding tears of sorrow at its extended running time. Thankfully this is not the case.

I Wish is four minutes of perfect funk of the sort that only Wonder can do. It's got a rock solid rhythm which propels it along driven by horn blasts and Wonder's soulful voice. It's fantastic and the sort of track that you have to turn up loud and rock along to. It even makes you want to get up and dance. I Wish knocks me off my feet and I wish the whole album was as good. Sadly it stops and Knocks Me Off My Feet starts which is immediately a return to the bland and awful Wonder that started the album off. I can't think of another artist who can lift me up so high and then drop me so low in the course of a single album.

I had the same reaction listening to Talking Book (which has the highs of Superstition and the lows of Looking for Another Pure Love) and Music of My Mind (which starts off on a huge high with Love Having You Around but falls away when songs like Seems So Long comes along). If there is a compilation of just Wonder's upbeat funk out there then I'd buy it and treasure it as a great album. A collection of his love ballads however would have me running for a mile.

Unlike his two other inclusions in the list however there is more variation on Songs in the Key of Life. It's a double album which gives him room to explore other feelings and moods rather than ballad and funk. Contusion for example is an instrumental jazz fusion experiment which sounds like most other Jazz Fusion experiments. If that's your thing then it's probably a great addition to the album, if it's not then you're probably a lot less keen.

One of Songs in the Key of Life's most famous tracks is Past time Paradise which Coolio subsequently turned into Gangsta's paradise and Weird Al Yankovic turned into Amish Paradise. I wonder how many people who loved and enjoyed Coolio's smash hit realised just how much it owed to Stevie Wonder's original? The famous chorus of Gangsta's Paradise is lifted wholesale from Wonder's original track and he deserves much more than just a co-writing credit giving him equal billing with three other guys.

There's some great stuff on Songs in the Key of Life. I Wish, Black Man and As are all worth multiple listens and Past Time Paradise deserves to be appreciated in its original form (because the lyrics are much better if nothing else). But there's also a lot of horribleness that I never need to hear again. Wonder is the only person I can think of whose highlights are so great but whose lowlights are so truly terribly low.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Stevie, I love you. You are my favorite Presbyterian."

-Just out of interest: who rounds out the rest of your great Presbyterian top ten?

So is this key of life opening your door or are you slamming it in Stevies Face? Let me know below.

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