Stevie Wonder started out the seventies releasing the great classic Motown style music the teenager was known for up to that point when he released another ultra catchy love song Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Your. But as the musical prodigy transitioned into his twenties, his music got a little darker, longer, and much more political with songs like Superstition and Living for the City that still remained as catchy as his earlier work. All this collimated with his last album of the decade and best of his career Songs in the Key of Life, this month’s induction into the Scooter Hall of Fame.
As the title suggests, the album is not simply just about love or politics, it is about life and everything that comes with it. And the complications of life can explain why it took two albums, a bonus EP, twenty-one songs, and an hour and forty-five minutes to get through. There is joy, pain, entertainment, and struggle, from the ghetto to the penthouse, from the cradle to every twenty-six years Stevie had lived upon the release of Songs in the Key of Life on the album. Does it get heavy handed at time as most double albums do? Yes (especially the eight and a half minute Black Man that went on too long before the classroom segment at the end) but it is still hard to say there are any throwaway tracks on the albums.
Like most people my age, who were yet to even been conceived when the album was released, it took me a while to discover the album as I consider Stevie Wonder a singles artists for most of my life. I will not even confirm nor deny that the first time I heard Pastime Paradise my first thought was who is this stealing from Coolio? But I will admit Coolio did help me realize that the ultra poppy Stevie Wonder from the sixties was just one part of an even grander career than I realize at that point in my early life. The haunting original Pastime Paradise was a death march that put other songs in the Wonder songbook that I already knew into a new perspective like Living in the City.
My favorite song on the album, and maybe number two in his catalogue behind Superstition, is the simplistically titled As. The title is a stark contrast of the grandiose love song with its sweeping chorus and beautiful verses. And where a couple songs go on for too long on the album (did we really need to hear Aisha Wonder take a bath), the seven minutes of As go too fast and could have went on for twice as long and I would not have minded. You may have to actually live life to fully appreciate Songs in the Key of Life (or at the very least hit a quarter-century like Stevie did as he was recording it), but once you have, the album should become a cornerstone of your record collection.