When one releases a landmark album consisting of some of the most prolific music ever written, the passage of time accelerates. Bits and pieces of its musical aesthetics become so ubiquitous that the album itself doesn’t seem as old as it is. “Songs in the Key of Life” is such an album that qualifies as a timeless classic. The term classic is tossed around loosely to describe influential pieces of work, but few have had the long-lasting impact of Stevie Wonder’s 1976 opus. The album contains some of the most covered songs of all time, some of the most recognizable pop songs ever and endless amount of praises from some of the best artists over the past 30 years - Michael Jackson, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey are among those who has cited this as being their favorite album ever. Not to mention that the album itself was entered into the Library of Congress for its cultural significance - a wonderful legacy for an album that turns 40 years old in September. An artist can aspire to make great albums, but it’s the fans long-term adoration and its level of influence that determines if a recorded piece of work is a game changer for musicians and a profound soundtrack to various aspects of one’s life. “Songs in the Key of Life” is an album that’s fortunate enough to be successful on both ends.
Conceptually, “Songs…” is perhaps Stevie’s most grandiose album ever; boasting two albums worth of original material plus a bonus EP with outtakes from the same sessions and as many as 130 musicians participating in the recording process. On paper it seems to carry the same level of self-indulgence as other double albums in pop music, but given Stevie’s grand musical vision, he takes full advantage of the double album format by not only showing off his musical range, but also giving his fans the dream album that they prefer from their favorite artist when they release twice as much material for commercial consumption. Every song on here is easy on the ears and not so overbearingly obsessed with experimenting with different sounds and textures. What separates “Songs” from a lot of double albums is that it doesn’t try to be a masterpiece by being too eager to impress critics, but Stevie instead uses the format to document a wide range of emotions and letting his inspiration guide you through the various corners of his mind and life in general. So when he does the experiment, he’s capturing the mood as opposed to trying to create one.
The greatness of this album lies in the songs seeming like a set of standards for the average individual. Rather Stevie is addressing social issues, reminiscing about his childhood, celebrating fatherhood or exploring the complexities of romance, the album hits upon a variety of mood swings that anyone can relate to. Can one find a better song celebrating the birth of a child than “Isn’t She Lovely”? It’s impossible to hear that immortal chorus and not have a smile on your face when you’re holding a new-born daughter. It truly captures the excitement and joy of having an extension of yourself that you’re proud to have in your life. Many can feel the introspection of “I Wish”- quite possibly the definitive song about reminiscing on the simpler times of childhood when parents disciplined their children differently and feeling grateful about how those life experiences shaped you into the person you became as an adult. Then there’s the irony of “Village Ghetto Land”, as Stevie projects how the refined sophistication of the status quo effectively places them out of touch with the struggles of the inner city underclass that are not as privileged as they are- but yet these people believe that America is good to everyone. It’s a message that resonates all too well today when you take into account institutional racism and income inequality. “Pastime Paradise” is something of a continuation as the foreboding synthesized string arrangements drives a story of the apocalypse as Stevie urges us of the dangers of remaining in a complacent lifestyle that can be destructive to others around you. Even at its most basic, the message songs seem to come from a heartfelt place. On ”Love Is In Need of Love Today” Stevie takes on the role of a wise prophet and plea for everyone spread more love around the world to make it a better place. From the opening line, “Good morn or evening friends/Here's your friendly announcer”, it seems that Stevie is speaking in the third person in the form of a higher spiritual power to transfer its message with the conviction of a world renowned religious leader. Turning to more celebratory matters, “Black Man” is not the scathing rant on black injustice as the title might suggest. Instead, it’s an elongated acknowledgment to the major contributions that men have made throughout the world- regardless of their ethnicity or race. While Stevie goes through the verses of the different men who’re responsible for major milestones in American history, the standout moment on this song is the closing dialogue at the end when a group of children is asked which person is responsible for a specific milestone and the kids graciously shouts out the answer and their ethnic origins- it’s an expression of pride in its truest sense. The Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke”, a huge fan favorite of all the up-tempo songs on this set, doesn’t have the somberness that typically comes with tribute songs of a passing musician. The jazz icon is sent off in grand style with an exuberant horn arrangement and lyrics paying homage to Duke and other jazz greats. It’s quite possibly the only song to my knowledge where a funeral procession feels like a homecoming parade. “Joy inside My Tears” expresses a rarely showcased sense of vulnerability in a man that was rarely heard on record up to that point. Whereas other soul luminaries like Isaac Hayes and Teddy Pendergrass can be very macho when they’re singing about heartbreak, Stevie wears his feelings on his sleeve and it isn’t afraid to let his ex-girlfriend see his tears as a way of letting her know that she will be greatly missed in his life, but she was a joyous part of it. I guess it’s the difference between a man crying in the dark and crying openly, which is what Stevie is doing on this song. “Summer Soft” Is Stevie’s lyricism at its best as he uses the four different seasons to tell a story about the excitement of love from for a specific time and just when you least expect, it’s taken away from you without notice. The song is immaculately structured with the chorus staying true to the months in which the man and woman drifts out of your life (October-Woman and April-Man). When you hear the concept of ” Summer Soft” it makes me wonder if the saying “certain people are only in your life for a season” or terms like “fair-weather friends” originated from the ideas of this song - just a mere curiosity. On another personal note, Stevie began interacting with other cultures as evidenced on “Ngicuelela - Es Una Historia-I Am Singing” as he expresses his solidarity towards the Zulu and Spanish cultures that he had become acquainted with- presumably because of the increased international exposure he was receiving at the time of the album’s release. While the album is choke full of classic songs, the most golden moment on this set is arguably “As”. If “Songs in the Key of Life” as a whole is a culmination of every musical style he’s explored up to that point, “As” is a culmination of every specific mood he’d explored on “Songs in the Key of Life” wrapped up in one spectacular song. It hits on so many different emotions at one time. It can be uplifting, spiritual and romantic at times and with its lyrics and choir styled chorus, it becomes an anthem of graciousness. It’s a song that can work during Church service, wedding receptions, graduations or any form of celebration where the people involved are overcome with a sense of euphoric bliss.
“Songs in the Key of Life” is one of those rare moments where the power of music merges with one’s inspiration and communicates a message that affects you profoundly. If anyone is looking for the ideal album to carry them through their everyday life, “Songs” can feel as refreshing as having a heart to heart conversation with a close friend or relative. It’s like a Book of Hymns set to a groove. Every time you listen to a Stevie Wonder song or album, you feel touched and enlightened in a personal sense. But when you listen to this set, you just may feel transformed for the better- which is something we all aspire for through life milestones and lessons.
This is a guest review by Patrick Frierson. Patrick is an avid music lover and collector. He’s spent the past five years or so collecting nothing but the finest in vintage recordings that range from well-known classics to underground gems. Hopefully, you’ll find his reviews to be inspiring enough to make you want to groove out to some of the coolest albums ever recorded. As a rule, he doesn’t write negative reviews, so if he takes the time and effort to review a recording, he genuinely loves it. His passion ensures that he will place a great deal of care and detail into analyzing albums and sharing the info with the readers of The Penman Post. He hopes you all enjoy it as much as he enjoyed sharing his musical experience with you.