By Daniel Garrett
Producer: Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder has recorded many good and important albums, including Music of My Mind, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Songs in the Key of Life, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, Hotter Than July, and his recent A Time to Love, but Talking Book is special: it is impressive, and without false or failed steps, and his concerns are common and yet his genius shines through. “You are the sunshine of my life” has to be one of the most assertive statements of faith and love, a pure embodiment of romance, one that bridges the usually fickle human heart with the constancy of the universe. The song begins with a four-line duet between a man and a woman, over the congas of Daniel Ben Zebulon, an enactment of musical drama, and a bit of artifice that allows both feeling and contemplation of feeling. In the song “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” Wonder sings, “I feel like this is the beginning, though I’ve loved you for a million years.” What is he talking about? Is this a spiritual connection, a suggestion of endless reincarnation? A surrealist supposition? Old-fashion hyperbole? As narrator Wonder claims, “And if I thought our love was ending, I’d find myself drowning in my own tears.” It is one of those songs one hears for years, enjoys, and at a certain point it becomes so familiar that one stops listening to it (one hears it but stops thinking about it). It is the first song on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book album, and if one requires corrective to such an optimistic view, that comes with the second song, “Maybe Your Baby,” in which Wonder’s voice is front and center, intense, saying, “I’m feelin’ down and some kind of lonely, ‘cause my baby done left me here. Heart is blazing like a five-alarm fire, and I don’t even give a care.” He describes his woe—isolation, paranoia; and he is mocked by the chorus, which suggests, “Maybe your baby done made some other plans.” (The dense, pulsating and sensuous guitar rhythms of Ray Parker Jr.—and of Stevie Wonder’s synthesizers, presumably—suggest a blend of psychedelia with the blues, an original funk.) The song indicates where romantic faith can lead, how vulnerable it makes the dreamer, how disastrous loss can be: a feeling changes and all the world seems to have changed. “I feel like I’m slippin’ deeper, slippin’ deeper into myself, and I can’t take it. This stuff is scarin’ me to death,” Wonder sings, to be mocked once more, and again, maddeningly, by the chorus.
“Here we are, on earth together, it’s you and I,” begins Stevie Wonder’s “You and I (We Can Conquer the World).” One of my favorite songs when I was young, not yet eighteen, was Stevie Wonder’s “You and I (We Can Conquer the World),” as sung by Barbra Streisand. It was a time when I was quite willing to believe that human existence could be described by a love song, that the ambiguities of self, the danger of contradiction, and the hostility of the world could be transcended by friendship and love: at least, I was willing to believe it for certain hours during any given day. (Other times, I believed in nothing but mind, self, art, and politics.) “Will it say, the love you feel for me, will it say that you will be by my side, to see me through, until my life is through?” asks the song, asks the hopeful narrator. I saw the drama of love as a kind of grand metaphor, a journey, a struggle, a travail, that was heroic. I was not yet eighteen—so though I would not have accepted that fact of age then as an excuse for foolishness, I am more willing now to consider it a fair excuse. The song’s narrator admits, “I am glad at least in my life I found someone that may not be here forever to see me through. But I found strength in you.” The singer—the dreamer, the lover, the speaker—can even conclude, “in my mind, you will stay here always, in love, you and I”—“in my mind.” That is realism, a precarious realism, thereby a dangerous realism.
Wonder gives “Tuesday Heartbreak” jubilance, though the words acknowledge the one he loves has someone else: “I want to be with you, when you feel you got another man” and “I wanna be with you when the nighttime comes, I wanna be with you when the daytime comes, I wanna stay, baby, lemme, baby with you.” (David Sanborn’s saxophone in “Tuesday Heartbreak” is part of the song’s easy-to-share joy.) “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” with lyrics attributed to Yvonne Wright and music to Stevie Wonder, has a narrator who tries to offer intelligent counsel to a woman he is infatuated with—and it continues the themes of the preceding songs, with the narrator continuing to woo a resistant person: “When you insist on excluding the tenderness that’s in my kiss, then you’ve got it bad girl, you’ve got it bad girl.” (With words and phrases such as “excluding,” and “contradict” and “outlet” and “false reactions” and “detouring,” the lyrics have an intelligent—an analytical, a conversational—but not particularly poetic sound, as in “There’s no reward in detouring my deep sincerity.” Stevie Wonder’s inflections are so deft, so soft, these phrases do not fall heavy on the ears.)
“Superstition” is a song that remains appropriate for the attitudes of many people: it names beliefs that persist despite fact, despite logic. (However the writer, Stevie Wonder, does not go far enough to see how superstition might be a form of romanticism, a form of a mythology similar to his own.) “Thirteen month old baby broke the lookin’ glass” is one line: a line that matches innocence with destruction. (The entire thought is “Thirteen month old baby broke the looking glass, seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past.” Superstition, which is not rational, is hard to argue against: there is often a look of pain or determination on the face of the person with whom you try to reason.) “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer—superstition ain’t the way,” Wonder sings. “Very superstitious, nothing more to say. Very superstitious, the devil’s on his way,” Wonder sings: with excitement, with warning. Trevor Laurence’s saxophone and Steve Madaio’s trumpet add to an irresistible, rollicking rhythm that drives the song’s message into limbs and minds. As with “Superstition,” the song “Big Brother,” about a supervisory power, about surveillance, remains potent: “Your name is Big Brother. You say that you got me all in your notebook, writing it down every day. Your name is ‘I’ll see ya.’ ‘I’ll change if you vote me in as the pres, the president of your soul.’” However, the song ends with a response to power, a prediction, a prediction that may be coming true: “I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you. You’ll cause your own country to fall.”
“Where has my love gone? How can I go on? It seems dear love has gone away,” begins the ballad “Blame it On the Sun,” with words attributed to Syreeta Wright and music to Stevie Wonder: its simplicity is very effective. “But I’ll blame it on the sun, the sun that didn’t shine, I’ll blame it on the wind and the trees.” The futility of blame of nature, of others, is apparent; the self-accusation, so rare, is just: “I’ll blame it on the time that never was enough, I’ll blame it on the tide and the sea, but, my heart blames it on me.” In a similar collaboration, the two write about happy days ended with a phone call—“Lookin’ for Another Pure Love”—in which the narrator vows to find another lover, more happiness, in what could be a renewal of faith or supreme foolishness. (Jeff Beck’s guitar adds something ruminative, sad.) It can be no surprise then that the album could end with a song called “I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever),” which begins with a disappointed and despairing narrator who yet affirms love, declaring, “When the truths of love are planted firm, they won’t be hard to find” and “I’m so glad that I found someone to believe in again” and “god surely answered my prayer.” It would be interesting to examine how faith and love and god are connected, that each may be a stone set against despair, invented for that very purpose.
Talking Book is a work of consciousness and distinctive musicality. In liberating his own talent, Stevie Wonder enlarged the possibilities for African-American musical talent, and those inspired by it: with boyish charm and manly confidence, Stevie Wonder explored intimate relationships, and political situations, and he became one of the most significant artists of his generation. He defined, rather than was defined by, his cultural moment. In his use of musical instruments and technology (Arp and Moog synthesizers), and in his fulfillment of his ambition—to create beauty, to provide pleasure, to affect the world’s consciousness, all classical concerns—Stevie Wonder embodies a modernist tendency, at once individual and African-American, in popular music and contemporary society.
Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House; and his work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, NatCreole.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org