10 reasons to love ‘songs in the key of life’

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.

Black Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love’s in need of love today

10 Transcendence

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)