“Just because a record has a groove / Don’t make it in the groove,” or so says the reverend Stevie Wonder on the celebratory “Sir Duke.” Given his illustrious career that began with the releases of A Tribute to Uncle Ray and The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, it seems that Wonder is eligible for some sort of knighthood or lordship like the title figure of the above song. Better still, Wonder’s earned his right to be venerated by others just as much as he venerates the subjects of the song: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. If there was ever proof of this bold call for living legend status, it’s the two-years-in-the-making masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life.
Song in the Key of Life is one of Wonder’s finest musical achievements, a double-album that, like his other work in the decade, shirks the pure pop hits sensibilities of Berry Gordy in hopes of making an overreaching artistic statement. Here, the album concerns life itself, all its ups and downs, heartaches and headaches, those lovely moments that make it worth living and the rich history that brought us to the current moment in time. Special editions of the original LP included a 7-inch with similar concerns of life and love. There are songs about music and seasons shifting to the tone of one’s loneliness, songs about songs and tales of a possible utopia if only we’d all of us just keep looking forward. The diversity of subjects on Songs in the Key of Life is matched by its diversity of sound, straying from the purely celebratory “Sir Duke” to the somber into snarky “Ordinary Pain,” the joyous “Isn’t She Lovely” to the epic romance of “As.”
The album opens with “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” which in many ways epitomizes the core message of the album. Over smooth, mostly sparse instrumentation, Wonder delivers a precautionary sermon on hate running rampant and the measures that can be taken against it. “If love and peace you treasure / Then you’ll hear me when I say / That love’s in need of love today.” This call for love to combat and overcome hatred, that idea that love conquers all, permeates a majority of the album, pronounced outright in “As” (“Just as hate knows love’s the cure“) and the Zulu/Spanish/English “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia/I Am Singing” (“I am singing someday love will reign / Throughout this world of ours“). The synth-laden soft funk of “Have a Talk With God” follows Wonder’s introductory call to action. It’s a reminder of the power and importance of prayer and the wisdom it can provide. In one lovely little lyric, Wonder reminds the listener that God’s “the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world.”
Wonder next explores poverty in the bitter, synth-stringed “Village Ghetto Land.” The string arrangement, the only instrumentation in the song, is posh and austere, an ironic juxtaposition to the dire song lyrics. Wonder sings of a crime-ridden dead end city paved by broken glass, where poor families are reduced to eating dog food. The most telling lines of how bad things are in this “Village Ghetto Land” are “Babies die before they’re born / Infected by the grief.” Wonder ends by chastising those who believe regardless of the situation, we should be grateful for what we have, closing with the question “Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?” Another exploration of social issues is found on “Pastime Paradise,” the song whose melody Coolio lifted for “Gangster’s Paradise.” Driven by deceptively realistic yet synthetic strings, Wonder compares those looking for some sort of social regression with those whose eyes are looking forward to a utopian future, ending with a call to to take action to ensure the existence of that possible paradise.
After the instrumental “Confusion” — brimming and bubbling with ascending and descending bright guitar solos — are the album’s two chart toppers. “Sir Duke” soars with warm horns and Wonder’s passionate voice explaining the universal language of music and its heroes while the sly groove of “I Wish” looks back on Wonder’s youth as a nappy-headed little boy. Taking the good (e.g., getting candy with Sunday school money, playing doctor) with the bad (e.g., getting whooped, not getting anything for Christmas), Wonder notes that no matter the situation, “We were happy with the joy the day would bring.” The nostalgic refrain of “I wish those days could come back once more / Why did those days ever have to go” are broken up and punctuated by impeccably placed horn blows.
“Knocks Me Off My Feet” is one of my personal candidates for loveliest love song ever written. While not as grand in scope in its pronouncements as “As,” there are perhaps few other songs that can sell the lines “I love you, I love you, I love you” as well as this one. But after pronouncements of devotion, first record closes with two tales of heartache. In “Summer Soft,” Wonder speaks of the shifting seasons and the girl who’s gone away. The two part “Ordinary Pain” begins as smooth as an Al Green tune, Wonder expressing the pain of breaking up with someone you’re truly in love with. The second part of the song introduces a thudding funk groove and the chiding female voice of the dumper who slings insult after insult at the dumped guy in the first part of the song.
The second record opens with “Isn’t She Lovely,” a much happier and joyous note than both the opener and closer of the previous record. The song was written about Wonder’s daughter Aisha and the joys of being a parent and creating a lovely new life. Wonder’s improvised harmonica solo and handclaps accentuate the song’s cheery sentiment. Aisha, whose delightful squeals are found throughout “Isn’t She Lovely,” performs a duet with her father on “How Will I Know” from A Time to Love.
Wonder provides a history lesson in the form of “Black Man.” From pilot Pedro Alonzo Nino’s place on the Santa Maria (“Guide of a ship / On Columbus’ trip“) to the work of Caesar Chavez (“Farm worker’s rights / Were lifted to new heights“), Wonder reminds everyone of the role everyone played to make America the country that it is. Sustaining the same groove throughout, “Black Man” ends with a group of children reciting the names of important historical figures in unison with youthful enthusiasm. The multi-lingual “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia/I Am Singing” follows the history lesson, Wonder singing English, Zulu and Spanish translations of the lines:
I am singing of tomorrow
I am singing of love
I am singing someday love will reign
Throughout this world of ours
I am singing of love from my heart
The epic “As” which stands near the end of Song in the Key of Life is filled with the types of grand proclamations and devotions that only true love can elicit. Lines like “Until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea” and “Until the ocean covers every mountain high” are devastatingly poetic, and it’s the pull of the one and only that can make a man or woman proclaim endless, eternal love in that manner. While the instrument arrangement remains mostly staid from beginning to end, the song’s strength is rooted to the growls and howls of the vocals and the dense swells of emotion in Wonder and his back up singers.
On the 7-inch included with certain pressings of the album (the songs from which are included with most CD versions of the album), Wonder similarly covers topics explored on the rest of Songs in the Key of Life. “Saturn” speaks of a hallowed and ringed utopia to escape to; the quirky “Ebony Eyes” with its vaudevillian vibe describes a girl who’s so lovely she’s number one among the world’s seven wonders; the sarcastic “All Day Sucker” covers a loveless, one-sided relationship with a head-nodding, foot stomping thump; and the sleepy, harmonica driven instrumental “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” has a bluesy, nostalgic warmth.
The music of Songs in the Key of Life rings true, calling out in a voice so lovely, so familiar, like the voice of God or the warmth of your mother’s whisper pressed softly to your ear, that even at your lowest, all the music says is yes, yes, yes and even I love you, I love you, I love you. As hate’s going round, music knows it is and always will be one of the things that life just won’t quit and won’t quit on life. It’ll be there for all of us always until we dream of life and life becomes a dream. And we can feel it all over.
Similar Albums / Albums Influenced:
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Curtis Mayfield – Curtis
Bill Withers – Menagerie