Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life
In spite of his considerable talents, a vast body of commercially successful recordings spanning the decades and enduring recognition from the time he first appeared on Motown’s Tamla roster as “Little Stevie Wonder” at the age of 11, I still think Stevie Wonder is vastly underrated as a composer and performer. His maturation as a gifted writer and musician not only helped redefine the sound of “soul” and popular music in the ’60s, but led to a period of deeper, more introspective music in the ’70s that resulted in a trilogy of genre-defying albums–records that remain a benchmark for modern music today. Among those, Songs in the Key of Life is not only the most ambitious, but unfolds as a rich, complex tapestry of ideas and themes that are timeless.
I had the honor of writing an essay about “Songs” for the National Recording Registry, which was inducted in 2005. The essay was just published by the Registry and can be found at: https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/Songs-in-the-Key-of-Life.pdf
The essay is also republished here on The Vinyl Press.
Listening to the album today is a revelatory experience. Even if you think you know the album well (and it was played heavily at the time of release, along with a number of radio hit singles), there is so much here that is worth re-exploring. Perhaps I have matured as a listener as well. The contrasts between the funk and minor key melodies lend a grace to the album that keeps it moving. Far from being an exercise in self-indulgent excess, the two LP plus bonus EP set takes you on a voyage of melody, rhythm and instrumental prowess that seems too short when it ends. The production, discussed in more detail in the essay, is deft, with the right balance between spare and lush instrumentation. On the issue of pressings, I’ve usually found the Kendun masterings of Wonder’s records to sound the best on vinyl but “Songs,” as far as I know, was never mastered by Kendun. The copy I listened to while writing the essay is an early pressing and a good sounding one.