I recently mentioned to Felix (with whom I often enjoy talking in a noodly nerdy sort of way about music) that Songs in the Key of Life was my all-time favourite album. This post is a brief attempt to explain why.
1. Creative autonomy
The music industry in the 1960s and ’70s was notoriously exploitative of artists and, under the “leadership” of Berry Gordy, Tamla Motown was sadly no exception. But with the eye-watering multi-million dollar deal he made with Motown for the production and rights of Songs in the Key of Life (including unprecedentedly generous royalty arrangements and a final say in any future sale / direction of the label) Stevie Wonder both secured financial independence from and creative autonomy within the business that had (in a very real sense) owned him from the age of 11.*
2 Political Urgency
Stevie Wonder was (and is) a vocal critic of the United States’ right-wing trajectories (see, for example, songs like “you haven’t done nothin’” – released just a few days before Nixon’s post-Watergate resignation in 1974). In Black Man (one of the most seriously funky and edgy tracks on Songs in the Key of Life) he makes a powerful statement about the necessity of ensuring the position of Black and Indigenous history in school curricula and the importance of foregrounding such histories in American popular culture and consciousness more generally. The album was produced in 1976 during the United States’ second centenary celebrations, and the album as a whole might be read as a really powerful critique of what the idea of America had become in those two hundred years, alongside a joyous celebration of Black identities and Black culture as definitively, proudly American. Black Man might still be listened to today as a powerful rejoinder to what’s currently happening in many American school libraries and classrooms.
3 Musical virtuosity
Stevie Wonder is a superb musician and composer, who, with his innovative use of synths and cutting-edge production tech had, by the mid-1970s, effectively made the whole studio his creative instrument. Songs in the Key of Life is the culmination of the highly original studio style that Stevie had been developing since the early ‘70s, (when he moved to New York to work with electronic innovators Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff – and T.O.N.T.O – the world’s largest Moog). It also involves the organic creative input of American jazz musicians of unparalleled greatness, like Herbie Hancock and Dorothy Ashby. But the album’s greatest virtuoso is undoubtedly Stevie himself, who, with creative overdubs transforms his wonder-ful one-man-band (of synth bass, keyboards, percussion, harmonica, lead and backing vocals, and the Yamaha GX10 ‘dream machine’) into a crazy self-directed symphony.
TRACK: Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
4 Seriously Funky
The whole album just hums with Stevie’s insane funky vitality – which he is able to combine to joyous effect with other great musicians and brilliant production. There is just a completely vital flight-of-fancy, funky rhythmic brio about the whole album that I find unparalleled. Is that bass riff at the start of “I Wish” not one of the best song openings of all time? And just listen to the tightness of the horns, the overlayed bass dubs, the foregrounding of the yelps and handclaps in the mix . . .
TRACK: I wish
5. No Machismo
Several tracks on Songs in the Key of Life celebrate ordinary, everyday sentiment (including parental love) from a masculine perspective that is disarming in its sincerity and vulnerability. An album with ZERO dick swinging. (That said, I find ‘isn’t she lovely’ a bit too much sometimes, while objectively admiring the purity of its sheer Stevie-ness)
TRACK: Ordinary Pain
6 Musically complex yet completely accessible
Many of the tracks on this album are quite simply great popular music – that’s their defining feature – and yet they are also harmonically wild and really complex. Stevie finds so many (apparently effortless) creative ways of mingling easy pop melodies with the whacky modulation and harmonic structures more characteristic of modern jazz. Genius!
TRACK: Summer Soft
7. Songs that do what they say . . .
There are several tracks on Songs in the Key of Life that talk about a feeling, while themselves encapsulating that feeling in the music. The best example of this is Sir Duke – a celebration of the power of music (and of American popular music specifically) which is itself the perfect expression of that power. You just can’t argue with it! Come on!
TRACK: Sir Duke
8 … and songs that say one thing while doing another
This is an aspect of several tracks on Songs of the Key of Life which, to my mind, is one of the signatures of Stevie’s creative originality, when he’s at his best. ‘Have a talk with God’, for example, has a lyric about finding spiritual comfort at moments of personal distress and desperation, but the music used as the carrier for this message is truly weird and whacky – making the track a powerful expression of freaked-out melancholy discomfort rather than any sort of consolation. And then there’s ‘Another Star’ – which has a lyric about feelings of inescapable romantic entrapment enclosed within the most joyous, forward moving, latin-funk track you can imagine. There are also other songs where the music and the lyric work against each other in a sort of ironic counterpoint that itself embodies the song’s message (Village Ghetto Land) or where two parts of a song battle with each other, cancelling one another out in contradictory dialogue (Ordinary Pain). On what other album of popular music do you find this?
TRACK: Have a talk with God
9 Pure Joy
Songs in the Key of Life is what it says, including tracks that are necessarily varied in their range of feelings and flavours. There are moments of unease, of regret, of sadness, of righteous anger. But this range and this complexity notwithstanding, the overall vibe of the album is the feeling I always get from Stevie Wonder’s music generally – that is – a feeling of pure, unadulterated JOY. If his work is about anything, its about the sincerity of his conviction that, in times of darkness, music will always make things better and that, with a great melody and great musicians, you might sing love and harmony into being, thereby having a positive influence on the world. If you are a cynical person then Stevie’s music is probably not for you – but who doesn’t want to come away from an album feeling really uplifted and optimistic?
TRACK: Love’s in need of Love today
My love of this album is inseparable from my first experience of listening to it, in the mid1990s, as a graduate student who, having been brought up on 1950s and 60s American jazz, was really enjoying discovering the creative variety of 1970s funk and soul. I went to my favourite second-hand record store and bought a first-pressing, unopened, original 1976 vinyl Songs in the Key of Life – the double album with the bonus EP – spending more on this record than I’d ever done on any other, because I knew it was going to be amazing. I took it back to my flat, and listened to it all the way through on my own. By the time I had got to side 4, I was secure in my conviction of Stevie’s ineffable and transcendent musical genius – a conviction which has honestly never left me. One of the many things that drew Tom and I together (when I met him a couple of years later) was that he shared this conviction too. I still have my vinyl Songs in the Key of Life – and hear something new, and something brilliant, every time I listen to it. Take it away, Stevie!
* See Zeth Lundy, Songs in the Key of Life (2007)
Thank you, thank you thank you! I need more joy and here it is, in the music and your response to it.
I wish I could send this to my brother who bought this album when it came out, but he died last month. We both loved this album and your words brought back shared memories from our youth.
About 10 years ago I persuaded the leader of a choir I was in to set Love’s In Need…to a four-part harmony for the chour as I adored John Farnham’s acapella version. She did, but most everyone else hated singing it because the melody is in the tenor part and quite deep for women tenors! I was happy, despite their grumbling and my sore throat. It’s still a favourite song. I’m going to buy the album again.
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I bet your choir’s version sounded amazing, Ann, despite the sore throats!
Wow! I’m blown away by this post! Growing up in Michigan in the 60’s and 70’s, Motown was a dominant force on the radio. My friends and I had this album memorized, joyfully belting out the songs whenever we heard them. It was one of the few abums I owned, as they were expensive.
Who needs 10 reasons? Stevie Wonder is enough!
A truly seminal album. We almost wore out my brother’s copy when it first came out.
This is one of my cherished albums, too. I was thrilled to read your reviews because they mimic mine. Long ago I chose “As” as my fave song. I discovered this album in the summer of ’80 when I played it relentlessly. I truly believe that helped relieve me of the depression caused by the grief of the death of my sister three years earlier. Stevie’s music and lyrics are songs for the ages. Growing up in Motown, I fell in love with Little Stevie Wonder’s hit “Fingertips” (1962?). I wholeheartedly agree with your convictions: “…Stevie’s ineffable and transcendent musical genius…” Thank you for this review!
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Hi Kate. I haven’t listened to these songs for many years. My brother owned this album and played it a lot so it definitely accompanied my teen years even though it wasn’t necessarily by my choice. Listening today has brought back a lot of happy memories and your essay was, as ever, insightful and thought provoking. I think ‘pure joy’ is an absolutely accurate description of this music and reflects how I remember my brother at the time of the album release. He is no longer with us but listening to the songs brought him back so clearly to me. Thank you.
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Thank you Kate. You’ve reminded me of the Seventies when I first became aware of Mr. Wonderful. His music has always moved me, literally, and I’ve had many tears of sheer joy listening, dancing and singing along over many years. Yes, he is an inspiration.
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Always on my turntable 🌟
What a lovely post. I confess to Stevie Wonder never really being on my radar (probably because I am quite a lot older than you Kate) but it has been so interesting reading this I am going to have a listen!
Completely agree with every single word in this article!
Having grown up with R&B music, and living it still, it was a wonderfully refreshing morning pump to read the article and listen to the album once again. What a treat! Thank you!!
Well, now I need to pull this out and give it a good (new) listen!! Thank you for sharing the joy!!