Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Stevie Wonder

  • I Was Made to Love Her [Tamla, 1967] A-
  • Signed, Sealed and Delivered [Tamla, 1970] B+
  • Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 [Tamla, 1971] A
  • Where I'm Coming From [Tamla, 1971] B+
  • Music of My Mind [Tamla, 1972] B+
  • Talking Book [Tamla, 1972] A
  • Innervisions [Tamla, 1973] A
  • Fulfillingness' First Finale [Tamla, 1974] A-
  • Songs in the Key of Life [Tamla, 1976] A
  • Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants [Tamla, 1979] B-
  • Hotter Than July [Tamla, 1980] A-
  • Original Musiquarium I [Tamla, 1982] A-
  • In Square Circle [Tamla, 1985] B+
  • Characters [Motown, 1987] A-
  • Music from the Movie "Jungle Fever" [Motown, 1991] ***
  • Conversation Peace [Motown, 1995] A-
  • Song Review: A Greatest Hits Collection [Motown, 1996] *
  • A Time to Love [Motown, 2005] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

I Was Made to Love Her [Tamla, 1967]
By favoring the ecstatic rocker over Stevie's rather immature teen balladeer, this LP became a sure shot. The usual Motown filler gets in the way, and "Send Me Some Lovin'" is quite lame, but I'll take it in trade for "I Pity the Fool" and "Please, Please, Please." A-

Signed, Sealed and Delivered [Tamla, 1970]
Sometime in the past (can it be?) eight years, Little Stevie became Big, and so did his frantic one-smash-a-year style--wheezes, shrieks, and all. Consistent Motown albums are rare, and Wonder is still an immature ballad singer, though at least now he's covering "We Can Work It Out" (some ballad) rather than (I'm not making this up) "The Shadow of Your Smile." All the good stuff here is stuffed onto one great side--the most exciting music by a male soul singer in quite some time, and it fits no mold, Motown's included. B+

Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 [Tamla, 1971]
Most of these songs hit the charts in a big way before Stevie turned twenty-one last May. Because he's grown up fast, the love lyrics are less teen-specific than a lot of early Smokey, say, but the music is pure puberty. Stevie's rockers are always one step ahead of themselves--their gawky groove is so disorienting it makes you pay attention, like a voice that's perpetually changing. The ballads conceive coming of age more conventionally, and less felicitously. But he sure covered Tony Bennett better than the Supremes or the Tempts could have, now didn't he? A

Where I'm Coming From [Tamla, 1971]
Wonder produced and (with his wife, Syreeta Wright) scripted this escape from Berry Gordy's plantation, and as you might expect it's not entirely successful. Unlike his corporate masters, though, Wonder prefers sins of commission--he's always out on a limb, and if that means "classical" flutes and images like "ride the thorny mule" it also means the zany, stuttering autobacktalk of "I Wanna Talk to You" and the possible Sammy Davis cover "Take Up a Course in Happiness," not to mention the most expressive synthesizers yet recorded. And unlike the manumitted Marvin Gaye, Wonder never sounds like a simp--the sentiments may be stale, but their textures are fresh. B+

Music of My Mind [Tamla, 1972]
Making the most of the inevitable, Motown boasts on the back cover that "this album is virtually the work of one man"--he plays everything but one solo each on guitar and trombone. Sure could teach John Fogerty a thing or two about multitracked spontaneity--this music is mercurial above all else. Just like the blind genius he's always compared to, Wonder transcends taste. But because the specifics are less inspired than the gestalt--which is not to say I don't love "Love Having You Around" and catch myself enjoying the regrettable "Superwoman"--it doesn't quite hold together. B+

Talking Book [Tamla, 1972]
The artist breaks through and takes control, though not in that order. Suddenly he's writing better ballads than he used to choose, and not at any sacrifice of his endearing natural bathos (if you have doubts about "Sunshine of My Life," try "Blame It on the Sun"). "Maybe Your Baby" and "Big Brother" continue his wild multi-voice experiments but come in out of left field. And "Superstition" translates his way of knowledge into hard-headed, hard-rocking political analysis. A

Innervisions [Tamla, 1973]
It's neither Wonder's attraction to cliches nor his proud belief that he's the peer of anyone who can read this that leads him to render his mental life in a visual metaphor. It's because he's got no use for abstraction--he's technical/physical rather than logical/conceptual. Here once again he treads the fine line between glossolalia and running on at the mouth. Any suggestion that the bitter defeats of "Living in the City" are as unfactual as the "dream come true" of "Golden Lady" is simply irrelevant, because both are the truth--and unless he's snuck one past me and "Golden Lady" is about the sun, which would be interesting, that song is the worst one here. This is music that makes you believe in faith, almost like Stevie, who only knows that leaves turn from green to brown because he's got no choice. A

Fulfillingness' First Finale [Tamla, 1974]
What made Wonder's last two albums so gorgeous was the carefree indecorum of the ballads, which broke the rules with supremely indulgent self-confidence and only became more beautiful as a result. But this time the slow ones are less carefree than aimless. Only "They Won't Go When I Go" gets lost altogether, and most reveal substantial charms in the end, but we really shouldn't have to look so hard for them. The two great cuts, meanwhile, get across mostly on momentum--"You Haven't Done Nothin'," about "the nightmare/That's becomin' real life," and "Boogie On Reggae Woman," about boogieing on. A-

Songs in the Key of Life [Tamla, 1976]
It's no accident that the rich, hortatory one-man music of "Love's in Need of Love Today" is counterposed against the more intimately devotional one-man music of "Have a Talk With God," or that when the theme turns sociopolitical in "Village Ghetto Land" Stevie's synthesizer turns from African sounds to an ironic (though elegant) string-quartet minuet--the calm detachment of which is rudely interrupted by a jazz-funk tribute from Stevie's Wonderlove band, which then moves into the danceable black-music tribute "Sir Duke." And in themselves the words are much funnier and trickier than the sociospiritual bullshit or Maruice White or Kenny Gamble; as validated by the wit, pace, and variety of the music, they come close to redeeming the whole genre. A

Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants [Tamla, 1979]
Like most great popular composers, Wonder is an appalling "serious" one. With their one-world instrumental flourishes and other sound effects, the presumably synthesized "orchestral" passages that dominate the first two sides are like bad (!) David Amram at their best (!) and some justifiably anonymous Hollywood hack at their worst. (Major exception: "Race Babbling," especially when it glances a presumably synthesized horn riff off presumably synthesized voices and ostinatos.) And only two of the four songs on side three, which defenders of this album admire, are worthy of Key of Life. But on side four Wonder's indomitable open-heartedness finally breaks through the mawk. "A Seed's a Star and Tree Medley" is even more foolish philosophically than most of the rest of the album, but its elan makes Stevie's vitalism palpable, so that even the presumably synthesized orchestral passages that wrap things up sound ardently schmaltzy instead of depressingly schlocky. Still, next time I hope he aims lower. B-

Hotter Than July [Tamla, 1980]
Except for the all-embracingly Afro-pan-American "Master Blaster" and maybe the birthday greeting to Dr. King, there's no great Stevie here, but he does know how to have fun doing his job. Great advertisement for the political potential of oral culture, too. Between his free-floating melodicism and his rolling overdrive, his hope and his cynicism, he seems more and more like the best thing the '60s ever happened to. Sure outlasted Jerry Garcia, now didn't he? A-

Original Musiquarium I [Tamla, 1982]
Distilling an admirable but somewhat discursive album artist into one of rock and roll's most compelling songwriters (and rock-and-rollers), this would be an ideal best-of if the four (out of sixteen) new tracks matched up--only the ten-minute Dizzy Gillespie jam "Do I Do" belongs, though "Front Line"'s Vietnam-vet lyrics tries. The political side--"Superstition"-"You Haven't Done Nothin'"-"Living for the City"-"Front Line"--makes you forget he's an institution, and the "Higher Ground"-"Sir Duke"-"Master Blaster"-"Boogie On Reggae Woman" groove parlay meshes like that's the way God planned it. On the other hand, the calm, condescending cruelty of "Superwoman" has worn so badly that it not only undercuts its own seductive melody but casts a pall on "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," the most beautiful song he'll ever write. Docked a notch for male chauvinism. A-

In Square Circle [Tamla, 1985]
Compare this to the others in your head and you'll be hard-pressed to specify what's missing, but slap on Talking Book or Hotter Than July and you'll hear how cushy it is--polyrhythmic pop rather than polyrhythmic rock. Stevie's effervescence is so indomitable that it's a pleasure even so, but nothing rises far enough out of the stew--"Land of the La La" is no "Living for the City," "Part Time Lover," no "I Just Called to Say I Love You," etc. Then there's the infectious "Spiritual Walkers," in which Stevie gives it up to Hare Krishna and witnesses for the Witnesses. B+

Characters [Motown, 1987]
Nine lines in, he assumes the voice of God to assure sufferers that everything's gonna be all right, and instantly you lose heart. But then his chronic self-importance disappears--the worst it gets is spacy, and Stevie can make spacy a trip when he's on. Which he definitely is--melodically, rhythmically, emotionally, politically, sonically. Erupting in anti-Reagan rhymes or imagining a nasty joint or keying a love ballad to his own recorded bodily rhythms or whomping a groove with Michael Jackson or finding the balance between black-pride lyricism and antiapartheid militance, he sounds like he's got something to prove again. Ronald Reagan can do that to a black hero. So can Prince. A-

Music from the Movie "Jungle Fever" [Motown, 1991]
a genius even when that's all he's selling ("Jungle Fever," "Fun Day") ***

Conversation Peace [Motown, 1995]
Sure you can take him for granted. He's as set in his ways as Neil Young or John Updike, his lyrics complacent mush even when he's preaching against handguns or "man's inhumanity to man." But overlaying track after track alone in his studio, he's a font of melody, a wellspring of rhythm, a major modern composer. So if at some level you've heard all this before, that doesn't mean it's worn out its welcome. And the seven-minute groove-sound workout "Cold Chill" will make you check back to make sure he's ever been better. A-

Song Review: A Greatest Hits Collection [Motown, 1996]
if comp you must, Original Musiquarium is on CD, and the good rarities here you can somehow do without ("Hold On to Your Dream," "Redemption Song") *

A Time to Love [Motown, 2005]
Right, what you feared--mostly mush. Since mush has been his specialty for almost 30 years--that is, since he was 26 years old--why anybody should expect him to turn into Bob Marley now beats me. I just marvel that the mush continues so tasty. The melodies don't falter, and Wonder's unexpectedly and perhaps unfortunately influential vocal attack is as mellifluous as ever. Credit his laziness, or maybe it's perfectionism. His touring schedule is nonexistent, and in the time he took for one album, fellow aging melodist Paul McCartney, for instance, chose to release four plus (don't tell Stevie, he might try again) a faux symphony. And speaking of McCartney, this stuff isn't all mush. Wonder's politics are moralistic and universalist. But he's as faithful to them as he is to the lady or ladies in his songs. A-

See Also