Album of the Week 27-2014: Stevie Wonder – Innervisions

For many years, ‘Innervisions’ has steadily been in my top 3 albums of all time and I can’t imagine that changing any time soon. Stevie Wonder was on a roll in the seventies, releasing a string of classic albums, but even by these standards, ‘Innervisions’ is a sublime work of art. As a collection of songs, nobody has yet come even close to the variation, memorability and melodic strength of the album, but the album also succeeds in the way its message is apparent without taking the music hostage. And production-wise, it’s still unrivaled as well; with Wonder playing most of the instruments himself, this is the ultimate proof that extensive overdubbing doesn’t necessarily have sterile, lifeless results.

When playing the album, it’s immediately striking how fresh and alive this album still sounds more than four decades after its original release. Every instrument sounds like it’s right there in the room with you. But more importantly: the songs have survived the test of time with incredible ease. The album is distinctly a work of the glorious seventies, but the melodies and lyrics are timeless and in a way ahead of their time. This is one of those rare instances where every song is a winner.

Let’s look at Wonder’s complete solo ventures on this record first; side two opens with the immensely popular – and rightfully so – Funk stomper ‘Higher Ground’, followed immediately by a lesser known moment of Funk genius called ‘Jesus Children Of America’. All the instruments and vocals (including the somewhat Gospel-tinged backing vocals on the latter) on these songs are done by Wonder himself. And yet both of them have a swing that suggests a band playing. The same goes for ‘Living For The City’, a tale of a young, hopeful African American man from the countryside vainly trying to find luck in New York City, which is arguably Wonder’s magnum opus. This album version crushes the single version because of the narrative in the middle and Wonder’s most aggressive vocal take ever in the last verse.

But even on the other tracks, the help is usually limited. ‘All In Love Is Fair’ is far and away the best piano ballad ever with only the bass not being played by Wonder. The beautifully dreamy ‘Visions’ comes closest to musical interaction, with Dean Parks’ acoustic guitar lending a Latin flavor and David T. Walker’s electric guitar giving sort of a psychedelic Rock edge to a deeply spiritual song. Other notable moments include the expertly written Pop brilliance of ‘Golden Lady’ and the unlikely, but ultimate successful Rumba and Soul fusion of ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’.

It sounds like a cliché, but to truly grasp the genius of ‘Innervisions’, you need to hear the album. It’s the pinnacle of an era when Stevie Wonder’s music was still deeply rooted in the Soul history of his record label Motown, but he was starting to branch out. That’s exactly why you don’t necessarily need to be a fan of Soul music to be able to appreciate this progressive work of art that’s still as relevant today as it was when the day came out. When doing interviews for Interface, I often use this album’s production as an illustration of perfection. But really, one could say the same about the songwriting. A music fan without this album has an incomplete collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘All In Love Is Fair’, ‘Visions’, ‘Living For The City’, ‘Higher Ground’

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