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.
Label: Motown Release Date: October 23, 1973 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon