Treble 100, No. 8: Stevie Wonder – Innervisions

Stevie Wonder Innervisions - Treble 100

Three antecedent events—or possibly circumstances—set the stage for the recording and release of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions in 1973. One subsequent event nearly made it his epitaph.

The first situation involved a high-level assessment of what was happening at the Motown group of labels: growing social awareness from key acts on its roster. Motown head Berry Gordy, Jr. found himself in a challenging position, not entirely embracing this development as it pertained to the independent label’s music. Gordy had created a sophisticated soul-pop hit machine that pushed rhythm and blues to the forefront of mainstream music. 

While Motown songwriters weren’t necessarily simple-minded—Smokey Robinson did not, and could not, dumb down lyrics—there was a somewhat restricted purview to what The Sound Of Young America could cover. If it wasn’t about love, music, or new dance steps, the suits had to be convinced a song was worth their promotional efforts.

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong weren’t content to toe the party line. The significant societal changes and events of 1967 and 1968 made it impossible for the songwriting team to remain quiescent. Strong sort of broached social commentary with his biggest hit as an artist, “Money (That’s What I Want)” in 1959, but by 1967 Whitfield’s work—primarily for The Temptations—hadn’t quite reached those levels of awareness, great as it was.

Then Whitfield and Strong wrote “Cloud Nine,” a hard-hitting, unflinching song about escaping the grim life “in the slums of the city” through freely available narcotics. The Temptations recorded it in a psychedelic murk, changing and renewing their fortunes for the rest of their Top 10 period. Berry Gordy hated the song’s dope-addled subtext but gave way to Motown office democracy.

“Cloud Nine” was a Top 10 hit on the pop and R&B charts. It also won Motown its first Grammy for best R&B duo or group performance. The New Tempts carried on with socially conscious classics: “Ball of Confusion,” “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Gordy, happy to see his skepticism overruled by the marketplace, stepped aside.

***

The second situation in Detroit that preceded Innervisions was a groundbreaking concept that rattled the industry: Marvin Gaye’s audacious claim to “complete artistic and creative freedom.” Such a notion was standard with bebop and free jazz artists—who would try to tamp them down? However, among more popular recording artists, only Frank Sinatra had unbridled control over his work thanks to his unofficial invention of the concept album. (That’s also because he owned his label, Reprise.)

Marvin Gaye’s quest for artistic liberation was a profoundly personal journey driven by his brother Frankie’s harrowing experiences in the Vietnam War. Watching protest songs become popular in rock and folk circles (as well as the Tempts, one imagines) sent Gaye looking for a new point of view. The tragic death of Gaye’s duet partner, Tammi Terrell, also had sobering implications for the future direction of his work.

Stevie opened his vocals on Innervisions; there were sounds he’d never made. He’d sung soulfully before, but now he sang urgently.

Gaye recorded the album What’s Going On over ten months and released it on May 21, 1971. Its seamless transitions, unambiguous topicality, and jazz-inspired flow made it unlike any R&B album to that point. And boy, oh boy, did Berry Gordy hate it.

“Cloud Nine” at least had a beat. Legend says that Gordy thought What’s Going On was the worst thing he’d ever heard. But Gaye, a total-package talent who’d consistently delivered for Motown, had the leverage for creative freedom. According to The Independent, Gaye told Gordy (also his brother-in-law), “Put it out or I’ll never record for you again.”

What’s Going On did not fail. The album reached number 6, and three singles hit the Top 10, including the number 2 title track. Gaye remained a chart mainstay until his 1984 death. Gordy again shook his head in disbelief all the way to the bank.

***

The third situation that led to Innervisions was a testament to Stevie Wonder’s audacity, a quality that led to his temporary withdrawal from the Motown family. This kind of narrative was not uncommon in the industry, but it was rare to see it embodied by a young talent who had just reached legal drinking age.

Stevie Wonder’s talent shone brightly at Tamla Records, a subsidiary of Motown, where he was affectionately known (and marketed) as “The 12-Year-Old Genius.” His first single, a vibrant harmonica-driven live cut titled “Fingertips (Part 2),” briefly became the top-selling single for the Motown Corporation in 1963. Over the next eight years, Wonder’s loyalty to Gordy’s pop machine, which consistently churned out exceptional music that defied its formulaic origins, was unwavering.

As the 1960s progressed, Wonder’s thirst for musical knowledge grew. He was introduced to Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, musical engineers who had created the groundbreaking custom synthesizer “The Original New Timbral Orchestra,” TONTO for short. TONTO, the most extensive analog synthesizer in the world, offered a unique sound unreproducible by any other solitary device of its era.

As Wonder entered his twenties, he enlisted the services of the brilliant but unpredictable lawyer Jonathan Vigoda. With his original contract with Motown nearing its end, Wonder was determined to secure better terms. His sticking point was the meager 2 percent of the royalties he was receiving. When his contract expired on his 21st birthday, he didn’t immediately re-sign. Despite a generous offer from CBS Records, Wonder’s heart remained with Tamla. He let the contract lapse, showcasing his confidence and belief in his talent.

Stevie was eager to collaborate with TONTO. While waiting for his contract renewal to move, Wonder recorded the equivalent of two albums simultaneously. They were eventually released as Music of My Mind and Talking Book, with TONTO’s swirling electronics highlighted on several tracks.

Finally, Stevie renegotiated his contract with Motown in 1971. His royalty share went up to 14 percent. He received ownership over his master recordings or at least got more favorable rights. Like Gaye, he was granted total artistic control over his recordings. The success of What’s Going On had opened up that avenue.

Music of My Mind and Talking Book were released less than eight months apart in 1972. The former was a modest commercial success, reaching number 21 on the album charts and producing no hit singles (although “Superwoman” became a cherished deep cut). But Talking Book proved to be his commercial pivot, peaking at number 3 on the album charts and issuing two number 1 pop hits, “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” It was also Wonder’s first Grammy nominee for Album Of The Year—a statuette he would become very familiar with shortly.

The critics were firmly on Stevie’s side during his reinvention phase. One may argue, however, that a sense of gravitas didn’t overburden the albums. Talking Book had one social commentary track, “Big Brother,” and I suppose it could be argued that “Superstition” was social commentary too. But overall, the weight of ambition was less present in Wonder’s 1972 albums.

That would change in 1973 when Wonder made Innervisions.

***

We as a people are not interested in ‘baby, baby’ songs anymore; there’s more to life than that.” Stevie Wonder said that shortly after the release of Talking Book, although his love songs like “You and I” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” are magnificent. However, the year 1973 saw the need to address specific cultural setbacks.

The Age of Aquarius was a bust. Mainstream culture had commercialized flower power (sometimes with the help of artists) and diluted the essence of the counterculture. The mismanaged Vietnam conflict loomed over American and Southeast Asian families. Despite its superficially good intentions, hippie culture was sometimes undercut by very subtle racism. That’s because it was primarily driven by whites who had a casual, uninformed policy on cultural appropriation. The Black Panthers, seeing hippie kids flexing their white privilege by “dropping out,” largely shunned the hippie movement.

The stark contrast between the New Left’s optimism and the reality of the early 1970s caused many musicians to rethink their approach. “Apathy is dead,” John Lennon said in concert. “Okay, so flower power didn’t work, so what? We start again.” Wonder, whose work and existence were the embodiments of optimism, had evolved to the point where he needed to reorganize his work.

Innervisions reflected something new in Stevie’s motivation: anger. Youth culture had been sold a bill of goods, and Stevie saw the slow disappointment seep into the mainstream. (And yes, I believe “saw” is the correct word.) He’d expressed shards of this disappointment in songs like “Heaven Help Us All” and his cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but both those songs end with mild disillusionment rather than white-hot indignation.

Wonder was in a unique position as a recording artist. Beginning with Music of My Mind, he played virtually all the instruments that weren’t guitars, winds, or horns on his records. TONTO had given him an entirely new palette with which to work. There were very few people in his studio circle to interfere with his shaping a new perspective. (Gordy had learned Gaye’s lesson.)

When the needle dropped at the start of Innervisions (the cautionary drug song “Too High”), it was clear it wasn’t going to be a by-the-book pop record. An insistent synth bass line, urgent and chromatic background singers, and Stevie’s multitracked, hallucinogenic harmonica solo showed he was willing to break sharply from the machine.

As Innervisions goes on, the dismay only grows. And yet, somehow, it’s not a negative record.

***

The general opinion of Stevie Wonder aficionados is that Innervisions was the second piece of the best four-album procession in music history. (Some insist it’s the third piece if you count Music of My Mind. I have no beef with that.) I believe it’s the fulcrum of his grander ambitions, the album most responsible for driving Stevie’s artistry in the future. 

Stevie opened his vocals on Innervisions; there were sounds he’d never made. He’d sung soulfully before, but now he sang urgently. Even the songs that aren’t apparent protests, like the reincarnation anthem “Higher Ground,” sounded like Stevie was emerging from a painful period, determined never to cycle back to it. “Living for the City” starts pressingly with Wonder pushing through a dire but not fatal narrative of a Black family scrabbling to get by in a time unfavorable to them. But after a mini audio drama depicting the hero’s orchestrated downfall at the hands of police, Stevie sings in a grumbling, rocky, let’s-face-it-effing-pissed off tone. The song structure pushes him through the transformation.

Wonder pulls off a similar feat on “Jesus Children of America,” a deconstruction of repentance and fanatical zeal. It starts like a quiet prayer against religious hypocrisy. As it progresses and the ugliness brewing under the first half comes up from the ground, Stevie explodes into reverential rage. The album closer “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” (about con men? Nixon? Common shysters?) has him screaming in the same guttural growl of “Living for the City,” imaging an inarticulable fury that carries through to the end of the record.

In its more restrained moments, Innervisions simultaneously waxes through cautious sadness and optimism. “Visions” sees Stevie imagining the end of all hardness in a distant time before shifting into a mournful admission that may not happen anytime soon (which it hasn’t). The incredibly devastating ballad “All in Love is Fair” is like no other love song in Stevie’s catalog, although “Lately” from Hotter Than July comes close. As with “Visions,” it reflects on dashed romantic hopes and promises, forcing the 23-year-old to meet some complex realities about the terms of a breakup.

Thanks to TONTO and Stevie’s instant evolution, Innervisions is the first confident synthesizer album. (The Who’s Who’s Next might have been if the ARP was used in more than two songs.) Wonder uses TONTO and his keyboard setup to cover novel uses of his synths. The TONTO and Moogs usually drive the bass line on this album (especially “Golden Lady”)—the synth colorations on the top half of the staff are wild and unpredictable. The majority of this record features one and only one musician, and there’s not a single mussed note in the grooves. Wonder’s lone-musician model had to be something Prince and maybe Lindsey Buckingham’s solo records emulated.

There are positive notes on Innervisions. The escalating “Golden Lady” is one of Wonder’s best love songs, and the remarkable empathy of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” is buffered by a locked-in Latin beat and piano and should have become a bigger hit than it was (number 16). “Higher Ground” could also be an uplifting song (pun suddenly intended), but its minor key and insistence make it an act of agitation.

It’s hard to overstate how Innervisions altered Wonder’s perception of his art. It’s a tightly structured work that reveals despair, cynicism, ire, and ultimately redemption. There’s no denying that Wonder had reconstructed his sound almost wholly on the record, and Stevie had forged a new path for creativity in R&B, pop, and even rock at 23. I could barely make boxed mac-and-cheese at 23; here’s this guy upping the bar on an entire genre.

***

I almost forgot about the fourth situation Wonder had to contend with, which nearly made Innervisions his last album. On August 6, 1973, Wonder’s cousin was driving him to a South Carolina radio interview when they collided with a semi carrying logs, one of which broke free from the truck and smashed through the windshield, striking Stevie squarely on the forehead. It put Wonder into a coma for four days and a lengthy recovery process.

Thankfully, Wonder recovered and reshaped his perspective as he did on Innervisions. His following two albums also won the Grammy for Album Of The Year, a hot streak unmatched until Taylor Swift came along. Wonder would continue to make outstanding records (Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants is better than you remember it), but the rises and falls of his career and life between 1973 and 1976 are the epoch period of his music-making. 

Many fans and critics think Songs in the Key of Life is Wonder’s masterpiece, and there are plenty of good arguments for that being the case. But to me, Innervisions is such a complete transition that it’s hard to see SITKOL existing unless Innervisions came first. The ground had already been laid, and Innervisions is the work on which Stevie Wonder built his castle.

***

Innervisions: Track By Track

“Too High”

Stevie’s gurgling synths underpin Wonder’s story about a woman gradually descending into a deep drug problem. While one (like me) may quibble about the idea of pot being a gateway drug, the psychedelic imagery and disillusionment are the point of the song (“She’s a girl in the life / But her world’s a superficial paradise”). The scatty background vocals push the jazzy context through to its cynical end.

“Visions”

It’s a heartbreaking number about seeing utopia with an almost instant realization that it’s probably just a dream. I’m not sure what genre you could place “Visions” in, with its gentle acoustic guitar and grieving acoustic bass giving Stevie’s hushed, despondent vocals just enough support to let the gentility flow through. “I’m not one to make believe / I know that leaves are green / They only turn to brown / When autumn comes around / I know just what I say / Today’s not yesterday / And all things have an ending,” Wonder sings in the bridge that deftly resists the urge for nihilism. America eventually got its utopia—if you replace the letter “u” with the letters “dys.”

“Living for the City”

A protest anthem on par with “What’s Going On” and Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Innervisions’ third track is a statement on Black reality that other parties refuse to listen to. Conditions are already harsh on the loving Black family moving from Mississippi to New York City, where they encounter an economy that doesn’t consider their kind. Out of nowhere, the song segues into a radio drama where the hero becomes a drug-carrying patsy and is hauled off to a ten-year prison sentence—the second he gets off the Greyhound. The cop in this section was an actual NYPD officer, encouraged to say what he always would in a drug arrest. (Stevie’s lawyer, Jonathan Vigoda, plays the judge, and his brother, Calvin Hardaway, plays the falling hero.) The final verse could have justifiably supported a pessimistic message, but Stevie turns it into a prayer. 

“Golden Lady”

A glorious, primarily restrained love song that’s one of Stevie’s best. “Golden Lady” is sweet and supportive, building the relationship up brick-by-brick with just a piano, Moog bass, jazzy organ, and drums. It delicately glides through higher key changes until the end, when Stevie performs a ridiculous number of key changes while arriving at the climax. (There’s no other way to put it.)

“Higher Ground”

Innervisions’ biggest hit single is about reincarnation, which I hope is coming soon. It’s a piercing combination of funk, blues, and gospel with TONTO and Wonder’s Clavinet, straight from “Superstition.” Stevie’s lyrics are stripped down as ever (“People / Keep on learnin’ / Soldiers / Keep on warrin’ / World / Keep on turning / ‘Cause it won’t be too long”). The hope of redemption through renewal is undercut by a sense of wrath (“Powers / Keep on lying / While your people / Keep on dying”). It’s dizzying and restorative. Yeah, I’d kinda like my check now, waiter.

“Jesus Children of America”

This is one of Wonder’s most underrated tracks, even though it’s on what I believe is his best album. It starts in a trance so heavy he rearranges proper sentences into something almost meaningless (“Hello children Jesus loves you of America”). The Innervisions song with the quickest tempo, “Jesus Children of America” gradually picks up steam until Wonder heads into full-fledged revival mode, urging sinners to get right or else face the holy consequences (“You’d better tell your story fast / And if you lie, it will come to pass”). I’m no believer, but I’d love to be under this gospel tent.

“All in Love is Fair”

Wonder’s marriage to fellow R&B artist Syreeta ended before Innervisions came out. This ballad reflects the harsh truths about a relationship’s life cycle and how some choices redirect us to different paths. Not quite reaching the level of cynicism, “All in Love is Fair” is more like a resignation, the kind the Young Stevie wasn’t expected to arrive at (“All in war is so cold / You either win or lose / When all is put away / The losing side I’ll play”). Utilizing nothing but piano, Fender Rhodes, drums, and electric bass, “All in Love is Fair” is a showstopper with unbearable sadness.

“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”

Surprise! A genuinely upbeat song on Innervisions! This is one of Stevie’s most enjoyable genre excursions, highlighted by a silly spoken introduction in which Stevie brags about his linguistic versatility. The song’s heart lies in its Latin percussion groove and more descending key changes before every chorus. Wonder lets his vocals loose in the refrain and the coda, allowing himself to lapse into authentic frontier gibberish. It’s a genuine release from the chaos and electric pain of most songs that come before it on the record.

“He’s Misstra Know-It-All”

Reports suggest the album’s last song reflects Stevie’s growing disdain for President Nixon, but I think he accomplished that with “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” from his next album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale. This is another slow builder, with Stevie laying waste to an unsavory sort that can’t be trusted, to put it super-mildly: “Makes a deal / With a smile / Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile… If he shakes / On a bet / He’s the kind of dude that won’t pay his debt.” The extremely long fade-out gives the listener a chance to reflect on everything they’ve heard on this album as Stevie improvises his lyrics into near madness (“If we had less of him / Don’t you know we’d have a better land”). The lack of an explicit political stance makes me think this song isn’t about Nixon, but rather the con man who “thinks of only himself.” So it’s about Trump.


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