It is difficult to choose “the best” Stevie Wonder album, as his classic canon of work from the seventies has been an indelible score to many of our lives.
After gaining creative control when renegotiating his Motown contract, Stevie released a host of classic albums beginning with “Music of My Mind” and finishing with…well I suppose that is one’s own choice.
One of my personal favourites is “Innervisions” which took a cue from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, and saw Stevie widen his lyrical scope. His previous album “Talking Book” was mostly comprised of love songs coming from a personal perspective but with his next LP the themes took on a wider social consciousness, addressing concerns like racism, poverty, environmental degradation and drug use.
The production values were also heightened with songs flowing into one another making it feel like a complete story, a complete album. The album furthered his collaboration with Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff from Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, as Wonder once again employed their T.O.N.T.O., an amalgamation of polyphonic analog synths that remains the largest synth in the world.
Prior to “Innervisions” release, journalists were taken on a blindfolded tour of New York City so they could experience urban life in the way Wonder experienced it – minus sight. So in preparation for my “Living for the City” deep listening experience I did the same. Okay, I may not have donned the blindfold but I did shut my eyes. This is something I usually do both at home and at our Classic Album Sundays events (as do many of our attendees). Once we remove the priority given to our sense of sight, it becomes much easier to listen more profoundly and immerse oneself in the music.
Seguing beautifully out of “Visions”, “Living for the City” starts with a foreboding Fender Rhodes chord progression, going from major to minor, building a sense of tension reflecting the frustrations Wonder reveals in his ensuing social commentary. “Innervisions” was released in August and from experience, I know that New York City becomes unbearably and intensely hot and this heat is paralleled by rising fiery tempers. These summertime blues are echoed in the backing groove.
Then kick in the drums played by Stevie (as is every instrument in the song) providing a walking pace perfect for striding the city streets. Wonder continues his story about the poor country boy that goes to New York City to find a better life. The Arp and Moog lines intertwine and Wonder’s increasing unbridled emotion is reflected in his sporadic screams and yelps. After singing along with the keyboard line in the bridge, he breaks into a repeated chorus and just when you believe the song will fade to an end, we are treated to a bit of headphone theatre.
We hear the sounds of the song’s protagonist boarding the bus in his native Mississippi and disembarking at the shady Port Authority bus terminal in New York. The sounds of the bus and the ubiquitous Times Square police sirens are hard panned left and right. In the dialogue the young man is duped into transporting drugs and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Stevie himself plays the central character but the remaining cast was most likely friends and people in the studio and word has it the janitor played the part of the nasty prison warden (his “N-word” remark was later sampled in Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”).
It is this sonic interlude that takes the song to another level as it is both playful and hard-hitting. The juxtaposition of social commentary against a groove that defies one to sit still is what makes “Living for the City” remarkable. It is also what has made the song last the test of time as socio-political songs can often sound outdated and like an insufferable soapbox. However “Living for the City” is proof that one can standup for one’s rights while still being able to “get down”.
“Innervisions” celebrates its 40th anniversary this August and is the Classic Album Sundays’ Album of the Month.