Songs in the Key of Life

Songs in the Key of Life

In 1974, Stevie Wonder was a multiple Grammy winner and the most critically revered pop star in the world. He was also considering leaving the music industry altogether. By telling the press that he was planning a farewell tour—and announcing he’d donate the proceeds to Ghanian charities—Wonder signaled that he didn’t feel his music was up to the challenge of making the world a better and more equitable place. Was it a all ploy in contract negotiations with Motown? Perhaps. But when Wonder’s next album, the sprawling double album Songs in the Key of Life, finally appeared in 1976, all was quickly forgiven. More than two years had passed since Wonder’s previous album—an eternity, given Wonder’s previous productivity—and all that pent-up demand made Songs in the Key of Life the fastest-selling album in history (it would sit at the top spot of the US album charts for more than three months). How did Wonder do it? By positioning himself as the benevolent overlord of a vast self-drawn cosmos, one with a remarkable cache of songs: Songs in the Key of Life runs nearly 90 minutes long, and rumors spread that there may have been as many as 200 demos left in the studio vault. The album was effortlessly melodic, broad in scope, deeply personal—and often just plain weird. In the era of the overblown rock epic, Wonder had created the most sprawling, empathetic, and searching soul album ever released. Think we’re kidding? Start with the brassy, hook-filled, and positively effusive chart-topping singles “Sir Duke” and “I Wish,” both of which have soundtracked countless barbecues and wedding receptions for decades now. At the other end of the spectrum: The stark reality-soul of “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise,” on which Wonder leaves the bandstand for the op-ed pages to decry the abandonment of the civil rights dream; and “Black Man,” which de-centered the Eurocentric history curriculum over a track as funky as anything Wonder yet recorded, culminating in a classroom call-and-response with a group of schoolchildren. Then Wonder’s own child, the recently born Aisha, shows up in the sugary sweet Girl Dad anthem “Isn’t She Lovely.” As Songs in the Key of Life nears its conclusion, Wonder clears the dance floor for 15 minutes of sumptuous gospel-disco in “As” and “Another Star.” But the album’s defining moment might come on a bonus track, one originally issued as an extra 45 with the album’s vinyl release. It starts in deep space with the Afrofuturist “Saturn,” a sci-fi fantasia that evokes no less than The Alan Parsons Project, but as that song’s last synthesizer chords fade out, Wonder zooms light-years in to an urban playground, where we can hear the sound of Black children skipping double Dutch. Sonically, culturally, and emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is much more than a gigantic collection of songs; it forms an entire worldview.

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