Sadly, Stevie Wonder’s pop-culture reputation centers around his final mega-hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” so new Wonder recruits who choose to delve into the singer’s unparalleled ‘70s output are inevitably surprised by the depth and power of his funky-bad earlier self. His phenomenal seven-and-1/4-album-long string of definitive soul music began with 1972’s densely layered Music Of My Mind, climaxed with his gargantuan 1976 opus Songs In The Key Of Life, and ended in 1982 with the four new tracks tacked onto his retrospective Original Musiquarium (the best of which, the post-disco romp “Do I Do,” is surely among the most joyful tunes ever penned). But the one album that basically all Wonderlovers can agree represents the man working at the very pinnacle of his considerable abilities is the keenly focused, brooding Innervisions.
Innervisions was something of a departure because Wonder, who was previously more than content to allow his lyrics—both bitter and sweet—to apply to simple love scenarios, had discovered a desire to tap into a larger reserve of collective emotion: in this case, the disenfranchised rage of America’s Nixon era. Unlike 1972’s Talking Book, which opened with the edging-on-insipid upward whole-tone progressions of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” Innervisions’ opening salvo, “Too High,” begins with a jangling cymbal and a bass-heavy minor-key riff that immediately segues into a frightening vocal break before repeating the cycle. Wonder enters singing the obtusely-metered phrase “Too high, I’m so high, I feel like I’m about to die,” which, incidentally, descends down the whole-tone scale in an inversion of “Sunshine.” Hobbling along, the protagonist of Wonder’s anti-drug screed finds himself (or herself) lost in a musical labyrinth that threatens to loop itself into a whirlpool of insanity. Clearly this was a different Wonder than the kid who just two years earlier had a major hit with the clap-happy “If You Really Love Me.”
The overt scare tactics of “Too High” melt into the soothing and gentle utopian ruminations of “Visions.” Wonder has frequently claimed that of all his songs, “Visions” is perhaps his favorite, and it certainly fits his personality: both politically conscious and still optimistically obsessed with a better future. A song as wispy and ephemeral as “Visions” would’ve been lost on any other album, and probably dismissed by critics as flakey. But one less-heralded tenet of Wonder’s genius on Innervisions is his intuitive mastery of song sequencing. Nestled in between “Too High” and “Living For The City,” Wonder’s fiercest moment, “Visions” has a calming effect. Wonder is occasionally targeted for being a tad too milquetoast as a funkateer, but even George fuckin’ Clinton would probably shy away from the astringency of “City,” which tells the story of a black man who grows up poor, attempts to make a life for himself in the city, is arrested immediately upon his arrival, spends 10 years in jail and winds up a grizzled, homeless, gritty-footed walking corpse. Wonder scores the man’s descent to a basic blues progression; hollow moog synthesizers and a low droning bass once again induce a surprising sort of terror (made all the more powerful following “Visions”).
“Living For The City” is the album’s centerpiece, and remains one of the only moments in Wonder’s career as a politically-minded pop star where he allows himself to come face to face with utter pessimism and caves in to it wholesale (check the avant-garde, atonal parody of patriotic leitmotifs that underscores his final howl of “No!”). The sweet reward of following Wonder down the path of his own personal hell is “Golden Lady”—the light at the end of the tunnel, the rebirth of Wonder’s optimism, whatever cliché you wish to attach to it. What can’t be denied (even if you’re put off by the bi-polar bait-and-switch routine that characterizes Side A, and find yourself cynically alienated by the song’s joyful denouement) is that the rich, gorgeous chord progressions of “Golden Lady” make it a soul sister to Songs In The Key Of Life‘s unparalleled “Summer Soft,” and both remain the best case for giving in to Wonder’s uniquely charming brand of joie de vivre.
The album’s second side is much less high-stakes than the first, and even if it too bounces between extreme emotions, it’s still suffused with the spirited energy of a man who’s finally gotten something off of his chest (“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” a rousing and deeply funky Latin hustle number). If one really wanted to, they could make a case that “Higher Ground” (the album’s biggest hit) and the incredibly wise “Jesus Children Of America” (which pleads for religious honesty even as it decries the showmanship of the “holy roller”) represent a religious awakening, and it’s this aspect of the second side that accounts for the feeling of relief. But with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, a genuine near-death experience (Wonder was put into a four-day coma after a freak car accident while promoting Innervisions) provided what was to become his ultimate statement on renewed spirituality: 1974’s Zen-calm and underrated Fulfillingness’ First Finale. But Innervisions remains Wonder’s most harrowing and tightly structured LP; one that manages to say as much about life in 45 minutes as Songs In The Key Of Life took an extra hour to convey.