Stevie Wonder - Innervisions - Review
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critics' view

Remarkably, Innervisions is Stevie Wonder's 16th studio album. It is the album that best celebrates his musical maturity and completes the transition from Little Stevie Wonder to the grown-up artist with an active imagination and burning social conscience. Coming just nine months after Talking Book, Innervisions is Wonder at the absolute peak of his powers, a 23-year-old man with the world at his fingertips.

After the release of Talking Book, Wonder said: "We as a people are not interested in ‘baby, baby’ songs any more, there’s more to life than that." As a result, Innervisions is like a snapshot of America in 1973, seen through Wonder's mind's eye. Too High looks at drug addiction; Living for the City addresses urban issues; Jesus Children of America conveys the cynicism of some organised religions. That said, this being Stevie Wonder, the album is rich in Motown schooling, its maker crafting a body of unforgettable, catchy tunes that coat the polemic sweetly – and this is most obvious on He's Misstra Know-It-All, the album's biggest UK hit. Its tale of greed and deceit – a thinly-veiled swipe at then-US president Richard Nixon – is set amid a ballad plaintive enough to be included in the chart-topping Motown smoochers collection The Last Dance at the turn of the 80s.

Innervisions routinely sits near the very top of critics’ polls and that’s because everything is in appropriate measure: the ballads are not saccharine, and the jazzy interludes minimized; the song and the message is everything. Working with programmers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, every synthetic squelch and innovation is incorporated within organic, analogue soul. Higher Ground is funky and punchy; Don't You Worry ’Bout a Thing became the template for acid jazz and Jamiroquai; and that is before the beauty of Golden Lady and All in Love Is Fair.

Within days of the album’s release, Wonder suffered a car accident that nearly killed him. For a moment, it seemed that Innervisions may have been his final recorded statement. If it had been, his poster would be on more walls than Bob Marley, Jim Morrison and Marvin Gaye combined. Thankfully, he lived and completed his run of mid-70s classics with Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life. But nothing in his canon quite hits the spot like Innervisions. It is the best long-form capturing of Wonder’s talent, and remains a work of constant, evolving surprise.

When Stevie Wonder applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early ’70s, he produced one of his greatest, most important works, a rich panoply of songs addressing drugs, spirituality, political ethics, the unnecessary perils of urban life, and what looked to be the failure of the ’60s dream — all set within a collection of charts as funky and catchy as any he’d written before. Two of the highlights, "Living for the City" and "Too High," make an especially deep impression thanks to Stevie’s narrative talents; on the first, an eight-minute mini-epic, he brings a hard-scrabble Mississippi black youth to the city and illustrates, via a brilliant dramatic interlude, what lies in wait for innocents. (He also uses his variety of voice impersonations to stunning effect.) "Too High" is just as stunning, a cautionary tale about drugs driven by a dizzying chorus of scat vocals and a springing bassline. "Higher Ground," a funky follow-up to the previous album’s big hit ("Superstition"), and "Jesus Children of America" both introduced Wonder’s interest in Eastern religion. It’s a tribute to his genius that he could broach topics like reincarnation and transcendental meditation in a pop context with minimal interference to the rest of the album. Wonder also made no secret of the fact that "He’s Misstra Know-It-All" was directed at Tricky Dick, aka Richard Milhouse Nixon, then making headlines (and destroying America’s faith in the highest office) with the biggest political scandal of the century. Putting all these differing themes and topics into perspective was the front cover, a striking piece by Efram Wolff portraying Stevie Wonder as the blind visionary, an artist seeing far better than those around him what was going on in the early ’70s, and using his astonishing musical gifts to make this commentary one of the most effective and entertaining ever heard.

Daryl Easlea
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading. external-link.png

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