I skipped March's "album of the month" - I was just too busy to finish my exploration of Lyle Lovett's I Love Everybody, and ultimately was not that happy with it. However, rather than retreat a bit from this project and tackle something a little smaller, I went in the other direction and decided to write about Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life because 1) It is one of the best albums of the 70s, if not all time, and 2) it has been on serious heavy rotation for me lately. It feels like a springtime album to me, and I have been craving some springtime. However, I will only write about the first half of it for now, saving the second half for a latter date, because 1) it is a double album and 2) because I've been listening to the first half more than the second. It is important to keep in mind, that I am discussing the songs here as they are broken up on the CD set. On vinyl, there was an additional EP with 4 songs which were split up and put in pairs at the end of each disc.
The thing about listening to Stevie is that for the most part what you hear is what you get. There are rarely any subtexts or irony in his songs, but everything has that earnestness of soul music - even his metaphors are obvious and his talk of love is unapologetic. But as far as I am concerned that is what I am looking for when I put on Stevie Wonder, and as long you know how to avoid the real cheese (basically most of his stuff from the 80s and beyond), you'll be okay. Songs in the Key of Life may threaten cheese at times, but it is totally mitigated by the earnestness, the funky dynamic grooves and that warm analog production. The album is from 1976 and I think you can tell that by listening. The problem is that sometimes that works in its favor and other times it feels a little dated, both in sound choice and in particular lyrics.
"Have a Talk with God" has a moderate groove that is accentuated with some awesome harmonica work. Hell, if it weren't for the fact that it was the mid-70s I would think it was sampled because of the way it plays with repetition of a phrase. The song is lyrically problematic for me. I mean, I cringe a little every time I hear the lyric, "Well, he's the only free psychiatrist that's known throughout the world / Solving the problems of all men, women, little boys and girls." Which problems is God solving exactly, Stevie? I think of violence, starvation, other forms of suffering and scoff - not to mention how at odds this message is with his more social progressive descriptive songs on the same album (like the following track, "Village Ghetto Land"). However, as someone who finds "talks with God" a helpful exercise, despite my skepticism and belief in a random and absurd universe, I appreciate the message. I can relate to it. The groove helps.
"Village Ghetto Land" has a simple repetitive melody over a bed of synthed out strings sound that is some of what I was talking about when I said that sometimes this record sounds like it is from 1976. It is like Stevie got a new toy when he recorded this song and could not help but use it in a way that is a little overwhelming - baroque even - and the synthed strings gives that impression of the baroque as well. Lyrically, it is a descriptive song that gives us views of life in the ghetto - it particularly gives me feel of the urban deterioration of the 70s. "Broken glass is everywhere / It's a bloody scene / Killing plagues the citizens / Unless they own police." And then there is the conclusion that I feel is at odds with the afore-mentioned, "Have a Talk with God": "Now some folks say that we should be / Glad for what we have / Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?"
"Contusion" is a poorly thought out instrumental fusion piece that I guiltily admit I skip almost every time I listen to this album.
"Sir Duke/I Wish" - These two songs are so well-known and so classic, I feel almost as if I don't need to write about them at all. They also go together in my mind, thus my listing them together. "Sir Duke" is one of those songs about music that I love. It is just so fresh and lively and sincere and speaks of music in a way I can deeply relate to - but more than anything it is the horns on this song that make it work, and the guttural encouragements that Stevie gives them, telling them to "Go!" The flourishes they give at the end of the lines and of course, the repetition of that melody on horn while the high-hat keeps time. . . You can't help but "feel it" just like the song says we do, "They can feel it all over!" - The bassline and plucky guitar of "I Wish" comes right out that last call to the horns to play that line again capped off with two hard staccato notes of ending/transition. (Though interestingly on the vinyl Side A ends here and Side B starts with "I Wish") It is the that electric piano groove that really carries this song. It is subtle, but holds aloft the wordy descriptive lyrics of unrepentant nostalgia - and that is exactly what it is, unrepentant. Singing of childhood, "I wish those days could come back once more / Why did those days ev-er have to go? / Cause I love them so." Again, to me this song is about good feelings and I don't like to undermine that too much by considering the fact that we do ourselves (and those that still suffer from it) an injustice when we sentimentalize poverty. So when Stevie sings of Christmas, "Even though we sometimes would not get a thing / We were happy with the joy the day would bring" I can't help but think that for a child suffering want, it might not be so easy to understand or appreciate that joy. Or on a more personal, less political level, I think that childhood, as wonderful as it can be, can also be a time of deep frustration and lack of choice. I think a lot of adults who express a desire to be young again forget how much of their lives were determined by others and institutions in those years, and how typically your resources are severely limited in terms of changing that. But whatever, it is still a great song, especially if you can forget the travesty that was Will Smith using it as the basis for the "Wild, Wild West" song for that awful movie. . . Stevie even agreed to be in video. . . Did I mention the movie was awful? I mean, giant robots in the old west sounds good until actually happens - I am all for remakes of mostly forgotten mash-ups of genre - but ugh! The highlight of the movie is the flash of Salma Hayek's butt you get in one scene, but not worth the price of admission even when played on cable.
"Knocks Me Off My Feet" - I have been listening to this song obsessively lately, and if you don't already own Songs in the Key of Life then you need to get off your ass and go buy it, or if you are into the whole downloading thing like the kids are these days, keep your ass in the chair, open up a tab on your browser or go to iTunes and get the album! And if not the album then this song. (Or I guess you can just listen to it on You Tube here). I am not going to say much about it except that I feel it lately. It is in some deep rotation for me - and despite its warning that its message may cause boredom, the repetition and earnestness work for me every time, especially when that syncopated high-hat comes in for the chorus near the end, to give it that underlying disco feel despite its soulful ballad origins, with the soft touches and the drum hits that parallel the melody that build to that beautiful chorus. Listen.
"Pastime Paradise" - People recognize this song because Coolio used it as the basis for "Gangsta Paradise" for that awful Michelle Pfieffer movie, whatever, whatever it was called. . . I forget. I don't care. Or, perhaps you prefer Weird Al's "Amish Paradise" (the beef between Coolio and Weird Al is legendary! - the former getting pissed at the latter for parodying his song! Uh, Coolio? Let me play something for you. . .) Anyway, again the lyrics of this song seems at odds with both "I Wish" ("They've been wasting most their time / Glorifying days long gone behind") and "Have a Talk with God" ("They've been spending most their lives / Living in a future paradise / They've been looking in their minds / For the day that sorrow's gone from time / They keep telling of the day / When the savior of love will come to stay"). It is a simple song and the refrain repetition of words that end in "-tion" seems like perhaps it may not really mean anything, "Dissipation / Race relations / Consolation / Segregation / Dispensation / Isolation / Exploitation / Mutilation / Mutations / Miscreation / Confirmation...to the evils of the world." But again, the song works. Strong music and earnestness can overcome weak lyrics for me, and in this case the string quartet (is it a synth? - don't think they sounded that good in '76 - it is.) over the moderate latin groove on the conga and a guiro more than make up for it.
"Summer Soft" is another song I have been feeling particularly lately because of April's inconsistent inclemency and unwillingness to get progressively warmer like I remember spring once doing, but maybe it never did that. . . Anyway, the song is the most poetic of the album, and while the metaphor of the unpredictability of the seasons/weather with love is pretty obvious it is still not as transparent as typical for Stevie's lyrics. The verses are as softly sung as what he is singing about, and the piano is quick, sprightly even, but with a strong build of rhythm accentuated by the rimshot snare until the gush of the refrain hits.
Summer soft ....
Wakes you up with a kiss to start the morning off
In the midst of herself playing Santa Claus
She brings gifts through her breeze
Morning rain ....
Gently plays her rhythms on your window pane
Giving you no clue of when she plans to change
To bring rain or sunshine
The second set of verses gives winter a male gender and I love how there is a bit more forcefulness and menace with this seasonal personification: "Winter wind..../ Whispers to you that he wants to be your friend / But not waiting for your answer he begins / Forcing dangers way with his breeze," suggesting that masculine aggression we all know so well.
The refrain is, as I said, a powerful gush, an accepting lament in tune with the inevitability of the changing of the seasons - the inevitability of lost love.
And so you wait to see what he'll do
Is it sun or rain for you?
But it breaks your heart in two
Cause you've been fooled by April
And he's gone
And he's gone
You find it's October
And she's gone
And she's gone
The organ work in the is song is amazing, but like many of the songs on this album it is the drums that seem to carry it on - the rhythms are strong and driving with melodic flourishes that accentuate and syncopate. Amazing to think that Stevie played most of the instruments on all of these tracks. Wanna see/hear Stevie jam it out on the drums? Click Here.
"Ordinary Pain" is a wonderful dyad of a song - the first portion being a lament of lost love and the second being a reply by the object of that love that gives the listener new insight, or at least a different point of view, on the situation. The first part of the song is sung by Stevie, sweet and soulful carried by a crisp electric guitar rhythm and vibraphone (or is it a xylophone?) melodic accentuations that parallel every time the oft-repeated phrase "ordinary pain" is sung. The laconic delivery really works for the song, the sense of trying to hold back real anguish with reason - the realization that the feeling of loss from a ended romance is normal, "ordinary," and to think that it is more than ordinary, to privilege your feelings over those any other person might have felt is to appear more than a little foolish. And it is about appearances, because the authenticity of feeling is never in doubt to the person feeling it, to everyone else the authenticity is beside the point, displays of that kind of emotion are slightly distasteful to even the most sympathetic person.
When you by chance
Go knock on her door
it's much more
Than just an ordinary
pain in your heart
It's more than just
An ordinary pain in your heart
Don't fool yourself
But tell no one else
That it's more than just
An ordinary pain
In your heart
The second portion of the song is sung by a woman (Shirley Brewer), and its sentiment is a lot harsher than the sad, slightly pathetic voice of the first part. Shirley's voice has a scolding tone emphasized by a chorus of women repeatedly hitting every syllable with staccato fury "or-DIN-ary pain / or-DIN-ary pain!" It becomes clear that the woman he sings of in the first part might have had reason to treat him so unkindly, "You're cryin' big crocodile tears / Don't match the ones I've cried for years / When I was home waiting for you / You were out somewhere doing the do / You know I'd really like to stay / But like you did I've got to play." The tempo of the music picks up and there is an off-eighths high-hat that gives it kind of pre-disco groove with a spacy guitar further back in the mix accompanied by an alto sax, and Stevie's electric piano keeps it altogether. Back when I used to DJ I used to sometimes play just the second half of this song.
"Saturn" comes in right after "Ordinary Pain" with epic sounding synth sounds over piano chords meant to emulate the strains of royal horns, or perhaps God's heavenly band blowing their brass. I can imagine that it may sound tinny or cheesy to 21st century ears, but there is something about the smallness of the sound juxtaposed with what it is trying to convey that works for me still, as if the hope in the song is beyond the confines of Earth - and rightly so, because here Stevie is so thirsting for a better more just world that he imagines his people coming not from somewhere else on this planet, but from Saturn where things make more sense through compassion and wonder. The longing in this song hits me every time from the very first line, "Packing my bags / going away / to a place where the air is clean / on Saturn." However, the song is as much an accusation as it is a vision of hope, because there is a "you" addressed in its verses that can be interpreted broadly as those in power on Earth, though honestly I tend to think of the "you" as white people and people of color being the people from Saturn - like hey, maybe things are set up the way they are because we are from another planet after all -
We have come here many times before
To find your strategy to peace is war
Killing helpless men, women and children
That don't even know what they are dying for
We can't trust you when you take a stand
With a gun and Bible in your hand,
With a cold expression on your face
Saying give us what we want or we'll destroy
But the chorus is a shout out to the vision of Saturn's wonder, "Going back to Saturn where the rings all glow / Rainbow moonbeams and orange snow / On Saturn / People live to be two hundred and five / Going back to Saturn where the people smile / Don't need cars cause we've learn to fly / On Saturn / Just to live to us is our natural high." Again, Stevie's lyrics are not his strength necessarily, it is the power of his voice, the emotion, the earnestness of soul that elevates his work. I love this song.
"Ebony Eyes" - This song begins with a recording of a group of girls playing double-dutch, singing one of those songs that end with a reciting of the alphabet, with the letter where the jumper messes up indicating who their crush, or true love or whatever might be. The scene ends with the girls screeching at the jumper, "Paul! Oh Paul!" and then the piano that carries the song comes in. It is beautiful and bouncy love song that references the "Black is Beautiful" movement, "She's a Miss Beautiful Supreme / A girl that other wish that they could be / If there's seven wonders of the world / Then I know she's gotta be number one / She's a girl that can't be beat / Born and raised on ghetto streets / She's a devastating beauty / A pretty girl with ebony eyes." It is a positive and uplifting way to end the first part of the album, closing on a soft roll of abrupt drums.
The second part of the record opens with "Isn't She Lovely" and while I said I was only doing the songs on Disc One here, I figured I would mention a little about some of them as who know if and when I'll ever get to a closer overview of it. Anyway, "Isn't She Lovely" is a sweet song to his daughter Aisha, but unfortunately it is made overlong by the addition of a recording of her in the bath. I guess there must be a radio edit, and sometimes I wish I could have the option of that one when I put the record on. I mean, I respect the love and joy that led Stevie to write the song and to include her baby-voice and cooing parental tones to the end of it - but it gets to be a little much. "Black Man" is a song to celebrate 1976, the Bicentennial. There are aspects to this song I really love, despite its problematic use of terms like "yellow man" to speak of Asians, or the fact that despite the little swell of pride I am meant to feel when he sings "I know the birthday of a nation / is a time when a country celebrates / but when your hand touches your heart / Remember we all played a part / in America to help that banner wave" I know that what we were all helping to was steal land from the people already here and that a lot of that building was done on the backs of the enslaved. "If It's Magic" is just voice and harp and a heartbreaking song that speaks to the inevitability of love lost. "If it's pleasing / then why can't it be never-leaving?"
"As" is one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs of all time. The last time I was convinced of the existence of God was when he performed this song at the end of a ceremony in his honor on BET I managed to catch six or seven years ago. There was a halo of divine light emanating from him and I thought I saw God peek his out from behind Stevie and wink at me. Finally, "All-Day Sucker" reminds me of "Ordinary Pain," or at least I used to get them confused. "I'm an all day sucker / Coming to give something to get nothin' / I'm an all day sucker / Coming to give something but to get none of your love." It has great groove and an unlikely wild electric guitar part in the middle of the mix with the repetition of a distorted singing of "all day sucker for your love / all day sucker cup for your love."
Like I said at the beginning "Songs in the Key of Life" feels like a spring/summertime album for me (in a long list of summer/spring albums I love to listen to - like XTC's Skylarking and a lot of hip-hop records) and I am sure I will listen to it in part and in full dozens, if not scores, of more times between now and September. I think you should, too.