Of course I should’ve counted on Sofi for the first question – and I should have known it would have been so completely perfect. That she would choose to invoke a great work of inspired genius released merely two days after my mother’s birthday in the year of my birth…well, that’s just Sofi.
and I quote:
“I’ve recently started listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” I knew a lot of the songs before, but I didn’t realize they were all on one album, *and* with such awesome new material I’d never heard before!
So what I’m curious about is, What was the reaction when this came out? Did it make everyone’s head explode? What was so groundbreaking and revolutionary about it? And do you have anything to say about how it influenced musicians to come? We generally hear African-American artists credit him, but I hear Pink Floyd and stuff like that coming out of this, too. All the trippy synthesizers and stuff.
Sof’s in Need of Love Today”
Well, Sof, by all accounts, this album did indeed blow people’s minds. We have to remember that at this point, Stevie had taken home two consecutive Grammy Awards for Album of the Year for his previous two releases Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and the one before that (also a top 5 hit) was TALKING BOOK! (I’m just saying…) In 1976 when Paul Simon took the same prize, I think he actually thanked Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album that year.
The Stevie machine had built up quite a frenzy at that point. His language had evolved into an almost unheard of combination of harmony and rhythm that was as sophisticated at is was accessible. He was feeding pop listeners the best of what American music had to offer and for a brief time in our history, the people were feasting!
That being said, instead of resting on the laurels of his obvious dominance as a thread in the weird fabric of pop-dom, Stevie took “Key of Life” far beyond anyone’s imaginings. It’s my understanding that he’d wanted to leave the music industry before this project began to work with disabled children in Africa. A noble cause indeed, but something changed his mind… It’s obvious to me that if that kind of genius was still lingering in the mind of any artist, it would be impossible to leave that work unsung for any reason. I guess what I’m saying is, it feels like Stevie’s inside parts was saying “I’m tired of holding back. You think I’ve done something great before and I’ve barely even scratched the surface. I’ve got other work to do here people. I’ll show you the truth, but just this once, and then I’m outta here.” I’m not saying he never did anything great after this project, but “Key of Life” is a gi-normous opus. I imagine that for many, trying to release an album in its aftermath was a lot like Europe trying to write a Symphony after Beethoven’s 9th.
I think the most “groundbreaking and revolutionary thing about it” was just how frigging awesome every offering on that album is. It actually delivers. When you listen to it, you can’t believe all of those amazing songs came from one person – and it’s not even a “Greatest Hits” album! I think it was easy to take his great songs for granted before this one, but on “Key of Life,” Stevie truly revealed himself as a composer, writer and producer.
As a producer, he pulled together over 130 musicians for this project, and came up with something monumentally compelling and cohesive. Accounts of these sessions make him sound like a one man Steely Dan. And Stevie’s compositional prowess must never be underestimated. (Have you ever heard his “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants?”) Now, I don’t know who his direct influences were for some of the more “progressive” elements on the project, but I know Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” didn’t come out until 1979. For me Stevie reveals that, contrary to popular belief, in order to be as consistent as he was at producing GREAT songs, you have to have access to an active intellect that can follow and keep up with the muse, wherever she might lead.
It’s certainly not just African American artists that recognize his imprint. Elton John said to Rolling Stone, “Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” Don’t let the blind ignorance of a deceptively uni-dimensional, monochromatic industry fool you. Whatever your opinion of “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie and his cannon are as universally significant to our musical landscape as Louis Armstrong. Revolutionary, brilliant, masterful, radiant. Aside from proving to an sometimes treacherous international house of mediocrity that unabashed awesomeness was both possible and commercially viable, “Songs in the Key of Life” was a great gift to the human experience, as great a gift as any person could hope to offer.