Soul music doesn't lend itself to albums quite as easily as rock or jazz. It enhances by distillation, not complication, and is the sub-genre best
communicated through the relative economy of the single, or the song.
That said, when an artist of such depth and quality as Stevie Wonder, who honed his chops in the hit singles factory that was Motown, is given a chance to expand, the sheer inertia makes it seem as though the songs are organically woven together.
As a blind adolescent, Wonder recorded single after single of joyously juvenile R & B. But 1971's Where I'm Coming From showed a sudden maturation, both musically and thematically, Wonder spent the early- and mid-seventies putting out a string of the most focused, inventive, and conscious soul albums ever released, an explosion unequaled by any other artist in the genre, and approached by very few artists in the rock-album era. The closest soul men were probably Prince and Michael Jackson, a decade or so later. But both of their runs fell short; Prince had some amazing highs, but was inconsistent and forced, and Michael Jackson, Wonder's old labelmate, simply never had the depth. Wonder dominated the music scene during that time, continually on the charts, and winning Grammys for Best Album in 1974 and 1975. In 1976, Paul Simon, accepting that year's Grammy, publicly thanked Stevie for not releasing an album that year. The very next year, naturally, Stevie won again.
Innervisions is the best of the lot, a rather efficient affair that features a daring musical palette, a constant groove, a spiritual bent, and lyrical precision, perfectly delivered.
Standing tall even in a collection of great tracks is "Living For The City", a song of unmistakable intent, and one of those songs that demands to be turned up and played loud. A microcosmic story of, basically, being black in America, it is one of those cuts that makes you think and dance. The album version, seldom heard on AM radio at the time, contains the audio-drama of a young man going to the city, aiming for bigger and better things, getting duped and railroaded, and, ultimately, thrown in jail for a decade, for the crimes of being naive, and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oh, and being black had something to do with it, too.
It is a vicious track, and the last two verses, after the audio-drama, has Stevie, one of rock's more underrated vocalists, a singer of effortless clarity and joyous expression, growling the lyrics in truly scary fashion. He simply tears the mess up. The story is that his engineers kept ticking him off by stopping the takes. I don't know if that's true or not, but, sweet lord, he sounds righteously pissed.
The album has also gained a somewhat mystical rep, as he was in a severe car crash days after it's release, and was in a coma for a few says. Even though "Higher Ground" was recorded before that, it foreshadows the deeply felt spirituality Wonder would embrace, and has become an anthem for oppressed people everywhere, similar to Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" in it's declaration that personal consciousness must be raised before true freedom, of any type, can be attained.
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