USA: Innervisions - Stevie Wonder
One of the most iconic records of all time, the multi-talented Wonder manages to pack complex and poetic lyricism alongside intricate and catchy music
At the start of this project, the lyric “music is a world within itself with a language we all understand” from Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke became a mantra guiding what we were about to embark upon. As we finally come to a close with an album from our 200th nation or territory to be featured on the website, we felt it was a perfect way to come full circle to look back at the music from the man who in effect became our spiritual guide. Innervisions is perhaps the most socially conscious of those five genius albums released over a five-year span from 1972 to 1976. Similar to our decision to review Abbey Road by the Beatles, we were blessed for choice when it came to selecting from Wonder’s back catalogue. However, though there are several albums we could have chosen, we picked Innervisions not only because it seems to encapsulate the zeitgeist of early 1970s America, but it also draws from many music cultures from around the world, which naturally caught our attention.
Utopianism is at the heart of much of Stevie Wonder’s music, with love and its universal power at the core of much of what he does. However, Innervisions marks a change in tone for the singer, with his central idealism still present, but it is marred by the brutality of reality. As a child star, Wonder’s music was characterised by his unbelievable musical talent and he won audiences over with his boyish enthusiasm and childlike hopefulness. That purity and that authentic vision for a better world has stayed with him through the years, but as he began to mature, that purity became viewed through the lens of the cruelty of the society around him, with this album being the best expression of that. This is the only time within Wonder’s career where he uses his lyrics to criticise and warn his audience of the perils of the world around them, whether it be the dangers posed by systemic racism or political corruption.
"Innervisions marked a change for Wonder. Inserting much of his own thoughts and ideas into his song-writing for the first time on such a scale allowed for an artistic renaissance which propelled him through the 1970s and developed him into the totemic artist he would become”
The album starts with possibly the most experimental song musically on the album, Too High, which deals with the social issue of drug abuse. It is a very funky number, with arguably his weakest singing on the album, demonstrating the distress of drug abuse. Though between us there is a disagreement on the meaning of the song, with one of us believing Wonder to be decrying all drug use, and the other vehemently protesting that the song is in fact about taking the right amount of drugs in moderation, the case is definitely that Wonder is against excessive use of drugs in the song. The lyrics end up with John Lennon-esque surrealistic psychedelia, yet it is ensconced in classic Stevie funkiness. One could almost imagine the song being reinterpreted in that classic late 60s Lennon style and it working just as well.
Perhaps the most famous song on the album is Living for the City, which shows Wonder at his most political. In the song, Wonder tells the story of a poor black family living in Mississippi, who do their best to overcome their circumstances and move up in the world, with his parents working hard to earn as much as they can, and their children study hard to escape their reality. However, life comes crashing down on them, as the son makes it to New York, only to be arrested and put in prison, then released a broken man. The song is broken up into three sections, with the first part detailing the life of the family, the second being a musical interlude with spoken dialogue in which the son goes to New York and is arrested, and the final section returns to the musicality of the first, but with Wonder’s raspy voice riven with a righteous rage. At the very end, Wonder addresses the listener directly and implores them to “make a better tomorrow”.
Wonder’s music is so often fun, bouncy, and joyful, which makes the interlude in this track particularly jarring, as not only are the content of the words spoken by the characters, in particular the police officer, often shocking, but the music that accompanies it is also discordant, with his synthesisers mimicking the sound of sirens, and additional sound effects creating a city soundscape of cars, buses, and general hubbub. The song is an excoriating critique of systemic racism and all its evils, yet it is wrapped up inside an extremely catchy soul song. While it contains one of the most iconic, yet ominous keyboard riffs at its heart, musically indicating that from the start this song won’t end well, it nonetheless manages to stick in the memory with its catchy and ambiguous refrain, “living just enough, just enough for the city”, ably sung by the choir that he uses. The lyrical uncertainty of what ‘living for the city’ actually means becomes clear as the song progresses – from 1945 until the mid-70s many black people left the Deep South in pursuit of a better life in the North, usually in the big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and of course New York City. What Wonder is doing is warning of the hazards of becoming enamoured of the fantasy that moving to a big city will solve all your problems, when in fact racism is still rife and baked into the power structures that the run the city. All these complex ideas are inherent to the song, but Wonder makes it accessible and therefore more powerful by using storytelling song-writing, whereupon he uses the microcosm to tell the story of the macrocosm.
The album ends with another overtly political track, He’s Misstra Know-It-All, which is a harsh critique of the then-current President, Richard Milhous Nixon. Though Tricky Dicky is not mentioned by name, the song is a long description of a conman who wins trust through lies and deceit, and has thus been long associated with Nixon, whose mendacity was unparalleled, but has now been Trumped. The recurring piano line that repeats over the title lyric acts as almost a type of hypnosis, luring the listener in with its catchiness. However, the song is sufficiently clever to remain just generic enough to support other interpretations, the most popular of which is that the song is in fact a veiled reference to Berry Gordy, the head honcho of Motown Records, with whom Wonder reportedly had a fractured relationship. The album flirts with politics throughout, but the last truly political song on the album is Visions, which takes a utopian more traditionally Wonder-esque look at the state of the world. the song is a ballad, with gorgeous acoustic guitar throughout, that serves as a lament for the beauty that could exist, instead of what actually does.
Not content with just tackling the political issues of the day, Wonder turns his skilled writing hand to themes of religion. These are first encountered on the song Higher Ground, which, aside from being a banger with the funkiest guitar this side of Prince, deals with themes of reincarnation and rebirth, both literal and metaphorical. It contains a message of constantly aiming to achieve one’s “highest ground”, while acknowledging the evils that exist in the world that conspire to keep people down, but also that none of us are undeserving of a spiritual rebirth. The placement of the song in the middle of the album is also likely intentional. After discussing the issues of drug-taking, institutional racism and a lamentation of the state of the world in the previous songs, Higher Ground points out that a way we can all make a change in the world is by working on ourselves and attempting to self-improve at any opportunity. For Wonder, songs like Living for the City are not just a finger-pointing exercise. Higher Ground demonstrates this, as his pure belief in humanity comes to the fore, as he is willing to let bygones be bygones, and looks forward to the future with hope in his heart. The song sounds like a fresh break from the previous song, as if to make his point on a musical level that it is a new beginning, invigorating the audience with an excitement that they may have at the start of a concert.
Wonder tackles religion in a different manner on the song Jesus Children of America, a foreboding song that takes aim at the hypocrisy of some Christians and how they use guilt and lies to manipulate people. The song draws the listener in with a typical gospel-style opening with lots of mentions of Jesus, but Wonder once again uses music itself to signal that something is off, namely his use of funk guitar and bass, which are not typical of gospel or religious music. The song is then revealed to be in the satirical tradition of singers like Randy Newman, who would often sing songs that take the position of a person with an opposing view. Wonder’s boldness in criticising the structures of organised religion, while at the same time advocating aspects of Eastern religions and philosophies shows his willingness as a musician to challenge deeply held convictions that defined the status quo of America, both then and now. This is particularly daring as an artist who grew up releasing on Motown, due to his audience’s love for gospel music and traditional Christian values that were rarely challenged in public forums.
Soul music is often adored for its pretty melodies and addressing of emotional themes, mostly relating to love. Much like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Wonder breaks the mould by hooking the listener with a similar musical structure which means the album can be appreciated solely on that level, while the more attentive listener will be able to engage with the meaningful lyrics. Though Wonder addresses a wide range of themes on the album, from the mind-altering effects of drugs, to the hypocrisies of the Christian church, the record should perhaps be lauded not just for its exploration of challenging concepts, but also for its musical invention, and there are a few songs that use more traditional subject matter for soul songs. Golden Lady is the kind of very charming love song that Stevie is extremely good at, with his swooning vocals adding the right amount of sweetness to the song, and the key change in the song, as well as its accelerating pace indicates Wonder as a man caught up in a typhoon of emotions. All In Love Is Fair is another gorgeous and lushly orchestrated piano ballad that features what may be Wonder’s best vocal performance on the album, while Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing is the most purely fun song on the album, indicated by the endearingly enthusiastic opening spoken section that features Wonder speaking broken Spanglish, as well as the fact that Wonder is having a ball recreating the Latin salsa sound akin to the artists of Fania Records. It may not be lyrically wondrous or ground-breaking, but its classic Wonder in the sense that its purpose is simply one of enjoyment and love.
Innervisions marked a change for Wonder. Inserting much of his own thoughts and ideas into his song writing for the first time on such a scale allowed for an artistic renaissance which propelled him through the 1970s, and developed him into the totemic artist he would become, inspiring a whole generation of talent across the world to create music with political resonance. Though he was not the only musician to combine pop and politics, he did manage to do so in such a way that his own reflections and aspirations became emblematic of our own. Even less successful efforts like The Secret Life of Plants were born out of a drive to push and redefine his musical output. While Songs in the Key of Life is considered his magnum opus, we regard Innervisions as the most complete expression of Wonder’s new-found creative spark. Much of the album itself is about Wonder’s own thoughts and ideas, but never veers into outright preachiness, rather it not only reflects the realities of the world as he perceives it, but also on love, drugs, self-improvement, religion and just how much of a bastard Richard Nixon was. The album is rich with the inner visions that Wonder wishes to make outer realities.