June 15th, 2000

Songs In The Key Of Life

Such is the veneration that Stevie Wonder is held in – blind, virtuous, black, sometime pop genius, he’s got it all – that he’s been able to bask in a glow of glassy-eyed sentimental admiration without most people over-inclined to acknowledge that it’s many, many years since he last made a decent record.

Even his admirers would concede this. Some would wince upon reminder of bile-curdling pop calamities like ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. Others might cite 1979′s risible concept album The Secret Life Of The Plants as the point when Stevie became unaware of the whereabouts of his marbles. The unacknowledged truth is, however, that the rot set in with the album most people automatically regard as his masterpiece – 1976′s Songs In The Key Of Life.

Owing to the engineered hype surrounding the date of its release and the fact that Wonder was then the highest paid artist in the world, the arrival of Songs In The Key Of Life was greeted with the sort of awe you’d associate with First Contact with alien spacecraft. It still features highly in All Time Greatest Lists.

Yet this was no glimpse into the future but into the bottom of the Wonder barrel. Musically, Songs . . . sees him fresh out of the synthesizer-based musical ideas that he had conceived in tandem with Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil in the early Seventies. All those buzzy arps and moogs were old hat. The real revolution bubbling in 1976/77, the one that would truly reshape the next era in pop, was in electronic rhythms. And, as the weedy trad-drum backdrops of songs like ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘I Wish’ indicate, Stevie was either clueless or indifferent in this department. These tracks are bottom-lite, undanceable-to. Meanwhile, jazz-funk workouts like ‘Contusion’ are musical white elephants, rendered obsolete by disco.

It’s the songs here, however, that really cause the album to sag like a souffle. Mundane ballads like ‘Summer Soft’ and ‘As’ take an agonising age to fade out, with Wonder shifting up endlessly through the keys as the listener looks on despairingly like waiters stacking chairs waiting for the last diners to quit yapping, down their cold coffees and sod off. Songs like ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’ and ‘Have A Talk With God’ are laboured Sunday School homilies with a little ‘funny’ secular twist that’s supposed to hook us. ‘Well, he’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout he world’ chirrups Wonder with the misplaced, ‘Hey, kids, we’re all in God’s gang!”" pep of an enthusiastic young curate. Stevie – He’s God. He never says anything. He never does anything. He’s crap. You might as well pour out your problems to an empty chair.

‘Isn’t She Lovely’ transcribes to vinyl every last icky-cooing dollop of sentimental gloop to which once-sentient adults are reduced when they have babies and, true to the album’s form, lasts longer than purgatory. Several minutes into this, with no light at the end of the tunnel of choruses, King Herod seems like one of the Bible’s more engaging and reasonable characters. ‘I Wish’ contains the most ridiculously misty-eyed and excruciatingly doggerel-ridden reminiscence on childhood. ‘Then our only worry/Was for Christmas what would be our toy/Even though we sometimes would not get a thing/We were happy with the joy the day would bring.’ recalls Stevie improbably, and, after a further, insanely upbeat lyrical account of an infancy of random parental thrashings and petty delinquency, concludes, ‘I wish those days would come back once more.’ Stevie – here’s a slap on the back of the head for no reason. That’s what those days were like. Get a fucking grip.

The lyrical nadir here, however, so awful it freezes the piss in your bowels is ‘Black Man’, in which Stevie celebrates the achievements of all Americans, black, red, yellow, green, etc. Its tortuous over-extended didacticism is bad enough (Yes. Yes. We get the point. Thank you. Yes. Thank you.) but when it’s appended with a lengthy call-and-response section between various schoolteachers and their junior charges (‘Who was the leader of united farm workers and helped farm workers maintain dignity and respect?’ ‘Caesar Chavez – a black man.’) you want to curl up under a duvet and shrivel away.

Like What’s Going On, Songs . . . is excessively venerated for reasons that are subconsciously patronising. The very fact that it was a double album meant it must be great but a double album by a Black Man – well, that’s unheard of. Your people must be so proud, Stevie. A terrific effort.

Songs In The Key Of Life pointed to the future but not the future that great black music, nor pop in general would take. It signalled Stevie’s own irrelevant future as a purveyor of soft-boiled MOR and teethrottingly mawkish ballads. The locks were changed just months later with Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express and Donna Summer’s “”I Feel Love”".”

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