Stevie Wonder - Songs In The Key Of Life - Review
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critics' view

By 1972, Steveland Hardaway Judkins was sick of the soubriquet 'Little' Stevie Wonder. Having showered Berry Gordy's Motown label with chart gold dust throughout the 60s the wunderkind finally took a leaf from the civil rights-related empowerment of black people in the USA and decided to make a stand (much as labelmate Marvin Gaye had). It was a blow for both personal freedom and the right to say something more than just "I love you'' through the medium of music. Threatening to leave the label, he gained the right to self-production (something that came easy to the musically precocious 22-year-old) and to make 'proper' albums. What followed was a stream of unsurpassed masterworks including Music Of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1973), Innervisions (1974), Fulfillingness' First Finale (1975) and culminating with this sprawling double: The album that Stevie (and most of his fans) still regard as his defining statement.

Critical discourse often labels SITKOL as 'experimental'. And while 21st century ears may struggle to grasp what this collection of funk, soul, fusion and pop has that makes it deserve the tag, once you contextualise it becomes clear. Wonder's work, especially with the electronic pioneers, Tonto's Expanding Head Band (Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil), had been edging towards new forms of expressing black consciousness as well as eroding the boundaries of what 'soul music' could mean. But it was here that Stevie really pushed the envelope. The fecundity of his musical imagination simply beggars belief. While he grapples (and wins!) with just about every genre under the sun here it's never at the expense of the song and never gives the impression for a second that he's showing off. To this end, rather than doing it all himself, SITKOL has a massive supporting cast of stellar names to help him in the joyous task of simply making music; from Herbie Hancock to Minnie Riperton and George Benson, as well as less obvious session legends like pedal steel player, 'Sneaky' Pete Kleinow.

To sum up the breadth of this album (which also came with an extra EP to show how overflowing was the man's muse at this point) would take an essay. In short it contains the Weather Report-like fusion of Contusion, the classical spoofery and wry social commentary of Village Ghetto Land, the gospel progeny of As and Love's In Need Of love Today, the pure pop of Summer Soft…etc. etc. And as if to effortlessly demonstrate that he could still straddle the artistic/commercial divide, the album gave us a slew of hit singles including the boisterous Sir Duke , I Wish and possibly the only cloying moment on the whole album, Isn't She Lovely.

It's Elton John's and George Michael's favourite album. Without it there'd be no Prince. It's continually listed as one of the best things in popular music. EVER. How much more do you need? If you don't own it, buy it tomorrow. Life, literally, isn't complete without it.

Chris Jones
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