Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff interviews. Very in-depth stuff on the creative process for the making of Stevie's classic period albums. I never gave them their due before reading these.http://www.waxpoetics.com/features/articles/innervisionshttp://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/i-thought-he-was-a-messenger-making-stevie-wonders-talking-book/264182/
Hotter than July: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I6ChKdiVX8
Songs in the Key of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORtmmsEPJOY
"Sketches of a Life" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORtmmsEPJOY
Music of My Mind wiki that I'll probably end up revising to make it a tad more the way I want it for this journal:
"Quite possibly what could be called the beginning of Stevie Wonder’s “classic period”, Music of My Mind is the first time his audience hears him fully experiment with the instrumentation of his records by using the rather sparse and sporadic synthesizer on every track. Though full creative control over his records was given to Wonder on his previous album, Where I’m Coming From, this is the first time we hear Stevie breakaway from the conventional Motown sound provided by The Funk Brothers (who were session musicians whom provided the backing for most of the Motown recordings from 1959-1972). As usual with Stevie Wonder albums though, we get a healthy mix of both optimistic upbeat songs (such as “I Love Every Little Thing About You”) and heartbreaking love stories (“Girl Blue” and “Superwoman” which are both about females who can’t seem to put their rather indepedent mindsets behind themselves to have successful relationships). We hear the additional electric guitar backing from Buzz Feiten on the second half of “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” which acts as a sequel to “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” that was on Where I’m Coming From and it’s likely to be the album’s highest point in eyes and ears of it’s listeners. Almost remarkably, Wonder manages to put this album together with little additional input outside of co-writing credits to Syreeta and Yvonne Wright, Art Baron’s tamborine playing on funk driven “Love Having You Around”, and of course Feiten’s guitar as mentioned earlier. Throughout the album we hear Stevie expound upon the highs and lows of romantic relationships which is much like a emotional rollercoaster, one minute he’s “Happier than the Morning Sun” and the next minute he’s “left alone to suffer” on “Seems So Long” and is searching for a new love chronicled clearly on church choir infused “Keep On Running”. The finale testament of the album is not about love at all though, rather it’s a question of “Evil“‘s placement in the world. Stevie’s voice soars higher and higher as the track builds and the album comes to a quite epic finish."
"You're the One for Me" by Marvin Gaye
"Perfect Angel" by Minnie Riperton
"I Can See the Sun in Late December" by Roberta Flack
"This Town" by Rotary Connection
"It Will Be Alright" & "We Had a Strong Love" by Smokey & the Miracles
Afrodisiac by Main Ingredient - "Something 'Bout Love" and "Something Lovely"
"Sleeping Alone" by The Pointer Sisters
"Spring High" & "Love Notes" by Ramsey Lewis
"Everytime I See You I Go Wild" by High Inergy
"Try Jah Love" & "You're Playing Us Too Close" by Third World
"Stay Gold" by Stevie Wonder
"The Crown" by Gary Byrd & The GB Experience Is it even possible for Stevie Wonder to release a classic quality album now?
With a growing complacency that's been building practically since the early 1980's, it seems highly unlikely Stevie would pull something like this off. Though Stevie has proven himself to be fully capable of making great albums and songs in the past, he just doesn't seem to have any of the proper motivation or sensibility to really do so now. The reasons for this can be quite relegated to prevalent straightforward answers, most of which are rather dismissive and simply just easier to process. You've heard them all before I suppose, stuff like 'all artists eventually fall off at some point or another' and/or are 'unable to keep up with the times'. And while these beliefs have some extent of truth in them, to a degree it's somewhat puzzling as to why these would be applied so much to an artist as seemingly timeless and adaptable as Stevie Wonder. After all, R&B artists today are still constantly trying to evoke his sound/style and lots of his artistic progressions still haven't been fully capitalized upon - to the point where a good portion of his work still sounds fresh even in this day and age. So really, the reasons as to why Stevie hasn't flourished (and most likely won't) in this era aren't as conspicuous as they seem.
As mentioned before, Stevie Wonder had a complacency building up in his artistry since the 1980's. But it might even be argued this began a while before that in the year of 1974. Yes, as early as that surprisingly... As it is generally well known (by Stevie Wonder fans relatively familiar with the course of his career), Wonder's breakout release (as far as many are concerned) is 1972's Music of My Mind
, notable for it's experimental use of synthesizer and unusual texture, which mostly can be accredited to his (then) recent collaborators, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil (a.k.a. Tonto's Expanding Head Band). Stevie's collaboration with Expanding Head Band proved to be a career defining one, with his musical expertise and the electronic music group's direction, it was a match made in heaven, clearly elevating the potential displayed on Where I'm Coming From
to new heights, totally giving Wonder's music a new dimension with exponentially more possibilities.
Thus the results were fruitful, delivering textures never before heard in R&B (or in music in general for that matter) that paired perfectly with Stevie's great musicality. This joint effort carried on for 4 albums, arguably reaching its greatest heights on Innervisions
in 1973 (their third album together). Come a year later, after Stevie had won his first Grammy for Album of the Year, things between Margouleff, Cecil, and Wonder weren't as congenial. According to Margouleff in a 2012 interview given to The Atlantic, "the more famous (Stevie) got, the less recognition (Margouleff and Cecil) got." Their work became more "laborious" and they simply "weren't getting paid properly." But more to the point, Margouleff felt after Fulfillingness' First Finale
, they had begun to "repeat themselves" to a certain extent, perhaps even more of a sign that this ideal musical marriage between Tonto's Expanding Head Band and Stevie was fit to come to an end before their creative output became redundant.
And really, with Fulfillingness' First Finale
, there was a sense that Stevie could have easily fallen into a somewhat repetitious musical sound; that album and its predecessor having quite possibly the most similar textures of his string of '70s albums. Looking back, one might even say a few of the songs on FFF
are extensions of those presented on Innervisions
(whether it be stylistically or conceptually). For instance, the closer of the latter album, "He's Misstra Know It All", which is often viewed as an indirect stab at Nixon's presidency, is made with a much more explicit message about Stevie's (& the peoples'!) displeasure with the Executive Office of the time on the upbeat funk jam "You Haven't Done Nothin'" (complete with a catchy clavinet riff highly reminiscent of "Higher Ground" - not to mention "Superstition"); meanwhile, the song "It Ain't No Use", with its warm and affable smoothness, continue this playful, practically tongue-in-cheek approach of song in how it deals with its unfortunate subject matter in such cheery contentment. Opposite of these jovial tunes, lay darker and more reflective ballads: "All is Fair in Love" being the standout of Innervisions
, with "They Won't Go When I Go" upping the ante on FFF
as far as the haunting mood of the tracks go (presumably because of its even more hopeless lyrical content). Finally, we have the evidently Latin-flavored "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing", as well as the more subtly infused "Golden Lady", which lead us to songs on FFF
such as "Birds of Beauty" (and to a lesser extent "Boogie on Reggae Woman") that very much induce this feeling of going on a "trip" somewhere (something blatantly stated in the lyrics as well), perhaps more specifically to a Caribbean island of some sort (more on this later). (And honestly, you could probably draw quite a few more connections if you wanted to, but I won't do that because that's tedious and I think the point has been driven enough. Also, you wanted to break down they way FFF
borrows from past Wonder albums, the track sequencing could be pointed out as being really quite similar to Talking Book
's as far as feeling of the songs go and their placement on each of the respective albums.)
may take some musical cues from its predecessor, its easily distinguishable qualities make it just as much an important piece of Stevie's discography as any of his other albums. FFF
, in contrast to Innervisions
or any of his previous albums for that matter, has a much more subdued and serene atmosphere, which is probably an effect of Stevie's then recent car accident which rendered him into a comatose state and caused him a severe brain contusion (Does that last word sound like a familiar song title?). Needless to say, such a near death experience made a big impact on Stevie personally, and according to Wonder himself, the coma put him "in a much better spiritual place" that made him more "aware of what...(he needed to do) to reach a higher ground." So from this new found sense of faith and mortality came Stevie at once in his most meditative of states, and it was clear what Fulfillingness' First Finale's
focus was to be about. As put by Ken Emerson in his terrific review of this album in the Rolling Stones magazine, it can properly be deduced that "if Talking Book
deal(t) primarily with love of woman and Innervisions
with love of humanity, FFF
concern(ed) the love of God."
Perhaps this renewed appreciation of God is most evident on the gospel-inflected "Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away", but even more felt on the powerfully chilling "They Won't Go When I Go", with its foreboding message about the fate of sinners. Yet although the subject of God may be the conceptual cornerstone of this album (with gospel undertones contributing to some of its cohesiveness), Stevie still finds plenty of time to further cover familiar subject matter dealing with romantic and socially conscious content, at the same time managing to evoke an exceptionally unique transcendent feeling to these songs; never more apparent than on the beautifully steel pedal guitar infused "Too Shy to Say" and the spacey synthesizer driven "Creepin'", both with their respectably dreamy ambiances. Sonically, Stevie & co. quite effectively achieve this feeling of transcendental meditation on this album, an idea first brought up on Innervisions
in the track "Jesus Children of America" and even "Visions". It's something that ties in well with the aforementioned feeling of the album taking the listener on a trip somewhere; that idea of being on some sort of "higher ground" as presented on the song of the same name, is still manifested here and expanded on - more so musically than lyrically, as Stevie usually opts for a generally easy listening experience on this project.
Lyrically, if there was proof needed to illustrate that this were in fact Stevie's intention with this album, it'd have to be on the already briefly talked about "Birds of Beauty", with its lyrical and musical characteristics intrinsically matching, describing a mind in need of "a vacation". The song details vividly how, in its own words, "a mind excursion can be such a thrill", presumably in some sort of meditative, spiritual state of mind (and all without the use of drugs as the song would go on to say: "unfound in white, red, or yellow pills"). "Birds of Beauty" is the true conceptual focal point, but this is coupled with various subtly reoccurring ideas of "flying away" and dreaming on other songs to really drive the theme home. The placement of this track on the album is important as well, juxtaposed in the middle of a very deliberately sequenced 3 song string to close the album. It follows the strikingly despair-fallen "They Won't Go When I Go", a ballad that brings us in the most unsettling of environments, a world full of sinners and people suffering because of them, a disarmingly pessimistic view from a usually pretty bright Stevie. "Bird of Beauty" relieves us of this pain and adversity we see and deal with on a day to day basis with a "furlough", or a suggestion rather on how to deal with life's stresses. Finally, there's "Please Don't Go", which when out of context might just come off as a pleasant love song a bit in the vein of the old Motown sound, works excellently as a closer here, perhaps Stevie actually crying out for this happy feeling or escapist state of mind not to leave him (and not actually a lover of his). Which then takes us back to "Smile Please" with it's hopeful claim of there being "brighter days ahead", quite cleverly positioned on the album, introducing the listener to this relaxed, idealistic setting.
On the other hand, Innervisions
presents a setting a bit more grounded in reality, particularly evoking what's it like to live "the urban black experience" (as collaborator Margouleff would go on to call it), but still having such an comprehensive world view as to still be able to reflect sentiments most anyone could relate to. Essentially, Stevie deals with what ghetto life is like - a socially unjust environment full of poverty-striken, hardworking good folk, junkies, unrepentant sinners, con-men, and what have you - stuff you can hear on such tracks as "Too High", "Living for the City", "Jesus Children of America", and "He's Misstra Know It All", which all capture the vivid landscape of this disheartening place some people have to live in. Vividness of the stories and pictures Stevie presents only heightens the effectiveness of the emotional empathy the listener has for the content that is covered, which is important - well, because obviously a change has to be made to all of this! - as put most eloquently when Stevie sang "I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow and that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow. This place is cruel no where could be much colder. If we don't change the world will soon be over" at the end of "Living for the City". This idea is continued on "Higher Ground" where he sings of the world, if it keeps going in this same direction, "it won't be long" till it is all over (which is important to why those people he talks about on "Jesus Children of America" get their lives in order sooner than later).
But what is to be made of the rest of the songs on Innervisions
? After all, they aren't really socially conscious charged or have that same amount of grit as some of the other tracks do (save perhaps "Visions" for the former). Well, obviously those songs represent Stevie's "innervisions" and give significance to the title of the album. It's really the very essence of the release, in that a good portion of the concept for it is about finding a way to escape life's troubles through some sort of spiritual meditation in order to receive "peace of mind". These songs, somewhat sporadically placed, balance the album out well with their collected, yet deceptive optimism. The first of which is the title track, "Visions", introduced to the listener almost right off the bat as the second song of the album - after the kind of buffer that was "Too High". It's a very mellow and contemplative song, that lays on some heavy, philosophical pondering, with Stevie envisioning this Utopian society of sorts. The message of the song, in part, is meant to be taken figuratively, not literally; Stevie doesn't actually expect there to be a perfect world (as he says he's "not one to make believe" and he surely has a firm grasp on what is what), but it is nice to imagine such a place. Stevie realizes this place - "where hate's a dream and love forever stands" - can only be accessed in our own minds forged with connection to God. So then we have "Golden Lady", with its ascending chord progressions and jazzy flow, which does a lot to continue this feeling of going into some higher level of consciousness as he sings "I'd like to go there" in the chorus. Meanwhile he continues the religious motifs throughout the album with lyrics such as "heaven eyes", which plays along with the "milk and honey land" reference that's found in "Visions". This leads us to the end of the album. where on "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing", Stevie is directing the listener (or particularly in the song's case a "pretty mama") to get in on this transcendent level of consciousness and take a "trip". The main idea here being that since you can't really look to the world for your happiness, you must look inside yourself and to God for it.
Anyways, you get the point that these two releases in Wonder's career have their direct similarities, in that FFF
was essentially picking up where Innervisions
left off, basically simulating musically (and occasionally lyrically) how Stevie's "innervisions" or transcendentally meditative mind state might feel and what emotions it might evoke. This is why the title (though initially awkward and perhaps even pretentious sounding) Fulfillingness' First Finale
works so well. If the album does serve as some destination place that Innervisions
was trying to arrive at, then it would make sense that this is the fulfillment of what was promised before (with such songs as "Golden Lady", and "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" as previously mentioned). It's a finale for somewhat obvious reasons, this serving as an end to the string of albums (going back all the way to Music of My Mind
), but the word "first" leaving room for the possibilities for more successions off this theme in his albums. The album displays Stevie at a mastery of his craft, essentially refining his sound, with a quite clear comfort in his abilities. This is why it might make sense why FFF
generally isn't quite as lauded and remembered as say, some of his other albums, even though it is basically every bit on par with them; the singles are solid, but haven't held up quite as well in popularity as some of his others and they really aren't even the highlights of the album. These things might play into why FFF
is a bit more appreciated by the avid Stevie fan than just a casual one.
So what next after such an artistic capitalization of his sonic and conceptual themes that was met with (by this point) customary critical acclaim (gaining his second Grammy for Album of the Year in a row) and commercial success (high charting singles as well as his first number one charting album in more than 10 years)? Well, more than a two year break between releases was what was next, and deservedly so, considering his high volume output the previous 4 years (from 1971 to '74), in that span producing 5 albums of his own and 3 for other artists, not to mention various other songs. And on the personal side of things, he went through a marriage and divorce, a life threatening brain contusion, and a year later, in '75, he'd have his first child. So certainly these years might be considered some of Stevie's most eventful, musically and personally. Thus fans had to wait a little longer for Stevie's next project, which, to be expected, was highly anticipated. It was so highly anticipated in fact, that Motown had started making t-shirts that read "We're Almost Ready" to lull anxious fans and let them know that the album was on the way (but also of course to build even more anticipation for it).
And Stevie wouldn't let fans down, curing the two year lapse in material by giving fans two albums worth of music. But such a double album, coupled with the high expectations Stevie had created for his work, needed an equally (if not even more) grandiose concept to match: something he found perfectly in the "key of life" concept. The concept was one that perhaps is a little too large for anyone to really totally cover in one album (even if it were in fact two albums worth of material), but was nonetheless a very apt title and critical part of the album for someone to really grasp what the work was trying to encompass. Yet it should be noted that the title doesn't necessarily claim to totally cover the concept, it simply works better as a vehicle in which Wonder could express his wide array of musical ambitions under one unified project.
- No TONTO helping him out anymore, employing a lot more helping musicians. As well as making it two times the amount of material - double album. What better way to execute an album than with such a far ranging concept as Songs in the Key of Life. Different types of music and material, succeeds in covering different aspects of life, reflecting back on past styles as well as trying new stuff at the same time.Songs in the Key of Life
plays somewhat like a compilation album in that it's not very cohesive. The track sequencing is, for the most part, not very fluid and really kind of awkward actually; the songs really more enjoyed outside of the album's context, which to a degree plays well into the Key of Life
concept. It almost just seems like a collection of various ideas that Stevie accumulated over the course of his over the course of his last few years working with Tonto's Expanding Head Band mixed with a few new ones, going for, more than ever, a very universally appealing album with tremendous pop sensibility that he had been gradually working towards with each subsequent release. And you can hear Stevie very self-aware of this, at times sort of breaking the fourth wall in a way, speaking directly to audience (the listeners of this album) on certain tracks - right off the bat actually with the first line of the album on "Love's in Need of Love Today". Stevie was very aware of the anticipation for his follow up of his two previous Grammy Album of the Year awarded releases, with a full two year break. And perhaps, this might be viewed as his most ambitious album yet, trying to top himself, further his popularity/accessibility yet still please long time fans. The latter of which he does pretty well, ever seeming to sacrifice artistry for... Songs in the Key of Life
encompasses the topics of previous albums and makes them more easily understood. Double album, extensive. Grandiose musical scope, yet each track is individually intimate - this relates back to the talking to the audience part. Also
Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/fulfillingness-first-finale-19740926#ixzz2sKVsBCQS http://www.steviewonder.org.uk/bio/life-stories/1973_accident.html
Why can't Stevie Wonder release a great album anymore?
- Complacency (career outline from Classic Period and on). Journey's poor reception and then his resorting back to more commercially viable efforts - loss of concept/cohesiveness in albums, eventually turning into a singles artist, more so than an albums artist.
- Age. Losing touch with the climate of today's society, thus unable to translate the proper feelings and beliefs that could effectively connect with the people of today. This also prevents him from being truly convincing and believable if he actually were going to make some hard hitting socially conscious music in the vein of say "Village Ghetto Land". Something like this might easily come off contrived and inauthentic, such as the cheesy "Don't Drive Drunk" (on the same soundtrack as the infamous "I Just Called to Say I Love You"). His aim is too broad to be quite thoroughly effective as his more intimate endeavors...As Stevie has gotten older, he's seemed to have gotten more and more sentimental and with his vocals have gotten noticeably weaker (from years of wear and tear I imagine), sometimes even sounding a bit whiny. There's also some loss of the youthful energy, we'd come to love him for...
- What do I mean by youthful energy exactly? Well for one, spontaneity is one of elements that can make music sound so good and fresh. The little things can make the biggest difference. Things like instrumental solos, interludes, and minuscule variations (be it in singing or production), are some of things that contributed to making Stevie's albums so great. Stuff like Stevie speaking Spanish while kicking game to a girl at the beginning of "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing", singing in a different language on "Birds of Beauty" (and "I Am Singing"), satirizing Motown executives on "I Wanna Talk to You", or suddenly transitioning a slow love song to funky jam with "I Believe" (and the list goes on). There doesn't seem to be those moments of evident experimentation in production that you'd get in some songs like "Girl Blue", "Big Brother", and "Pastime Paradise". Lyrically, we're missing songs that display him in his most pensive and comtemplative moments, prime examples being stan favorites such as "Look Around" and "Visions". Once where his ballads were great, we get banality such as "Bottom of My Heart" and dishearteningly uninspired shots at success in the adult contemporary genre (gradually sunk into). All these things are very important parts of what made his albums classics and unique from practically every other R&B artist out there.
- What he should have done after Journey...
- What he should do now. Get some younger people around him, generate new ideas and such. Janelle Monae & her production team of Wonder & Lightning to breath new life in his music, (Prince) and doing a good of evoking older styles. After all, she did name her last album after the studio in which some of Stevie's classic albums were made (Music of My Mind, Talking Book, and Fulfillingness' First Finale). Another thing: according to Cecil or Marg., Stevie and Expanding Head Band did a total of 160 songs together. So essentially there's 38 on record and maybe a few more that made the cut on Songs in the Key of Life, so that probably leaves at least
80 songs, enough of which would surely be good enough to make another entire album, if not multiple. I say update those motherfuckers! Use the old vocals and fill in the holes where they lay, implementing the mixing and producing skills of the old TONTO team again and Stevie adding the instrumental and vocal parts needed to make the song sound whole. I would freaking love another 4 albums worth of classic material from that era, regardless of its relevancy today and how well it might do commercially. Just look up unreleased Stevie Wonder songs on youtube and you're sure to find some gems. Here are some that have potential to be very good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmoIz9k0eCEhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zll7VVsj2cI&list=UUnDAeU874b5ZhLF6EZAXBzQhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxq9W1ixf2shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXEZWCY0EB4https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kib7z9CMIJYhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEyncJsS_jkhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeoomWu7V5g