I remember hearing the opening notes to Living For The City when I was young, feeling overcome by the sheer funkiness of the song as it boomed out of my Dad’s car speakers. It was the kind of funky that made me scrunch my face up and bob my head in a way that was sure to make me look unstable. Those few notes on the organ were the gateway drug into a wider appreciation of Stevie Wonder as an oracle of - you guessed it - funk. In his 16th (!!!) studio album Innervisions, Wonder plays with elements of funk and soul, creating an album full of highs and lows. Underneath the restless beats and the sturdy voice, the album tackles the instability of poverty, racism and drugs, at a time when these things were taking over the world.
Listening to the lyrics of Living For The City, for example, it’s clear this isn’t a feel good tune. Wonder depicts different instances of Black poverty and racism, from the mother who “goes to scrub the floors for many” and “barely makes a penny”, to the son who won’t get a job because where he lives “they don’t use coloured people”. Wonder incorporates bits of speech into this song, fully exploiting the ability to tell a narrative through his songs. The listener hears him as a young black man getting on to a bus to New York, only to be handed drugs to hold and arrested within two minutes of stepping off. He’s sentenced to ten years in prison before the melody starts up again, with the vocals shouting in what appears to be joy, at odds with the misery of what’s just happened.
It’s not always doom and gloom though. It’s clear throughout this record that Stevie is willing to mock himself; in Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, we hear speech again, this time at the beginning of the song where a cocky Wonder tells a lady: “I’ve been to Paris, Peru… I speak very, very fluent Spanish,” only to have her correct him on his pronunciation. This song seems the antidote to Living For The City, telling us all to relax as we go through personal struggles and personal growth. (It also draws on influences outside of the Motown bubble, evoking convincingly latin sounds to reiterate the positive mood).
It seems, therefore, that this is an album of balance; the melancholy All In Love Is Fair balances out the positivity of Golden Girl, both in tone and in style of music. Just as there are rip-roaring vocals and instrumentals that crowd the songs with their frenzy at some points, there are tracks such as Visions and All In Love… which mostly feature Wonder and his piano, letting his voice do the work. And what a voice it is; there aren’t many male artists today that can rival the range and impenetrable tone these days (although John Legend gives it his best go).
Listening to this record, it’s impossible to separate the man from the music like you can in modern pop music. There is a sense of conviction that never falters throughout the album. Wonder acts out his songs: In He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he starts calm, but gets more and more riled up as he describes this misguided know-it-all. As his voice gets louder, the music grows with percussion coming to the foreground, showing in no uncertain terms how Wonder feels about the confidence trickster he portrays.
This record is a short nine songs, but that’s not to say that it’s lacking any effort. Each track is basically single handedly put together, with Wonder credited for just about every instrument imaginable. With lyrics that dissect the complicated world of a black man in the 1970s and instrumentals as catchy as these are, this record is nothing but impressive. What’s also interesting is how relevant these songs still are, forty years later. Still, black families are left to struggle for money because employers are inherently racist; confidence tricksters still convince people to ruin their lives; drugs still kill young girls who were only looking for a high. So many albums are described as timeless, but this is the perfect example. While the music in some cases is somewhat dated (you’re more likely to hear Higher Ground in a themed 70s night than your average night at Unit 1), the subject matters - unfortunately - are not. Therefore, if you’re looking for some old school funk and soul with a contemporary subject matter, Innervisions is the album for you.