In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Stevie Wonder‘s 1973 classic album Innervisions.
If, for some reason, you could only have one Stevie Wonder album (and we certainly don’t recommend limiting yourself to just one), Innervisions might be the record that you’d want.
Pretty much everything you love about the man is here: romantic songs and social commentary; soaring ballads and badass funk. It features Stevie as a one-man band and also shows him collaborating with others (including backing singer Lani Groves, bassist Willie Weeks, and guitarist Dean Parks). He croons sweetly, and he belts it out with righteous fury. He gets experimental with the then-new ARP synthesizer, but also he also plays beautiful piano. And let’s not forget his relentlessly funky drumming.
What Wonder attempted here could have resulted in an unfocused, all-over-the-place album, and in most musician’s hands it may have. But this is Stevie Wonder (and Stevie Wonder in the early ’70s at that).With all that in contains, Innervisions does manage to have a cohesive feel.
The album’s mission statement was included in it’s most celebrated single, “Higher Ground” (one of three songs on the album that features Stevie playing all the instruments and performing all the vocals). In that song, he sings ominously of soldiers who “keep on warrin’,” and powers who “keep on lyin’, while your people keep on dyin’.” Stevie has always been a positive force, though, so the lyrics are just an assessment, not a complaint. Despite that, he sings, “Lovers keep on lovin’/Believers keep on believin’/Sleepers just stop sleepin’… Gonna keep on tryin’ till I reach my highest ground.” While he’s singing about himself, it’s him encouraging everyone else to do the same.
The album, however, does start out on a somewhat dark note. On “Too High” (a jazz-funk number, which also features Stevie on all instruments) Stevie sings about a girl who “takes another puff and says ‘It’s a crazy scene'”; her “world’s a superficial paradise.” And then: “Did you hear the news about the girl today? She passed away, what did her friend say? They said ‘She’s too high, too high.'”
On “Visions” he croons sadly, accompanied by electric and acoustic guitar and upright bass, wondering if society can ever attain a place “where hate’s a dream and love forever stands.” Or, he wonders, it is just “a vision in my mind?” The weeping guitars lead one to believe that Stevie isn’t 100% optimistic about that.
He then turns to funk on “Living For The City” (another one-man production), where he describes a family from “hard time Mississippi,” with the father who works 14 hours days (“and barely makes a dollar”), his mother who cleans houses (“and hardly gets a penny”) and his sister who goes to school (to do so, “she’s got to wake up early”). The brother is “smart, he’s got more sense than many,” and he grew up in a supportive home, but he isn’t able to find a job, and that leads to more trouble. “His patience’s long, but soon he won’t have any.”
And then, four minutes in, there’s an audio play within the song. The brother gets on the bus to New York City. “Wow! Just like I pictured it… skyscrapers and everythang!” Within a minute, over squiggling synth lines, you hear a series of events that leads to his being thrown in jail. Soon a judge announces that “a jury of your peers having found you guilty,” he’s facing a ten-year sentence. After he gets out: “His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty/He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York City.”
It’s difficult to be political and timeless, but Stevie does it with flying colors on this song. If you don’t think it is still relevant (particularly in the wake of recent court cases), go check out the film Fruitvale Station.
The romantic “Golden Lady” closes side one, and the upbeat “Higher Ground” starts side two.
— Brian Ives, Radio.com