Talking Book

Talking Book

The most effective way to explain the importance of Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book is by examining its two hit singles, each of which became a modern classic. The first was “Superstition,” which Wonder had originally written for Jeff Beck, but wisely decided to record for himself, too. Over an impossibly funky snare groove of swung sixteenth notes, Wonder coaxes a rhythmic croak out of his Hohner Clavinet D6, and then adds a Moog bassline, a horn chart, and a lyric about the vagaries of belief and rational thought that could, with some edits, date to the Enlightenment. (And, by the way, he wrote, played, and sang everything.) Four months after “Superstition” topped the pop charts, the same thing happened with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a lullaby-sweet ballad with a lyrical sentiment that could’ve been drawn from the Great American Songbook, featuring a glimmering electric piano line and intricate backing harmonies that fit perfectly into the early blossoming of R&B’s quiet storm era. Here were the alpha and omega of Stevie Wonder, a hitmaker equally capable of algebraic funk and starry-eyed sweetness—someone who, like Michael Jackson, the nation had known since he was a soul prodigy. As it turned out, the now-twentysomething Wonder had a lot more to say. He’d been evolving at a steady pace since dropping the “Little” from his name in the mid-1960s. But Talking Book was his most significant leap forward yet. With “Superstition” and “Big Brother”—the latter a dig at early 1970s surveillance culture masquerading as Black political leadership—Wonder demonstrated that he could keep pace with politically minded peers like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. With an ever-growing arsenal of cutting-edge instruments at his disposal, and few if any creative limits, Wonder began his unprecedented imperial stage on Talking Book. Even deep cuts like “Maybe Your Baby” and “Tuesday Heartbreak” expressed simmering romantic paranoia through, respectively, sultry funk and deceptively joyous soul. After more than a decade of standing in Berry Gordy’s significant shadow at Motown, Wonder used Talking Book to demonstrate that he’d mastered the ability to merge the dark and the light.

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