As I’ve done with previous Stevie Wonder albums, I’ve marked the 40th anniversary of their release with a retrospective review of the album in question. This time it’s Innervisions, regarded as Stevie’s second best in his classic era behind Songs In The Key Of Life. Personally, I rate this album higher than Songs. In the meantime, some back story is needed before I get into my thoughts on it.
Three days after Innervisions was released, Stevie was in a violent car accident in North Carolina that saw the the bed from truck in front the car he was traveling in smack him in the head and put into a coma for five days. There was really some thought that he may not make it through at that time, even as his newest album was soaring to the top of the charts.
Imagine Stevie Wonder dying at 23 years old. We talk about Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Tupac Shakur and Christopher (The Notorious B.I.G.) Wallace and what might have been, but Stevie could’ve possibly been the most tragic case of “What might have been” ever. Especially after releasing his best album up to that point.
The album starts off with a jazz-influenced warning about the dangers of drugs on “Too High,” in which Stevie’s mind’s eye is on display when he describes a woman who sees a “four-eyed cartoon monster on the TV screen.”
Visions (closest thing to a title track) is nothing more than bass, electric and acoustic guitar and Stevie on his Fender Rhodes wondering if the greatness in the world is just a vision in his mind.
Then it gets real funky (and angry) on the legendary “Living for the city.” Set against a thumping drum and bass pattern and winding synth play, Stevie angrily laments the condition of Black people in the ghetto and urban areas, telling the story of a boy from Hard Time, Mississippi. The breakdown comes when the hayseed brother gets off of the bus in New York City and is immediately framed for drug trafficking and gets 10 years in jail. Stevie comes back in a growl, trying to make sense of conditions that prevailed before the song and still do 40 years later.
The mood lightens considerably on “Golden Lady,” one of Stevie’s better love songs. A mid-tempo groove complete with a tremendous Hammond organ solo by Clarence Bell, Stevie expresses his heart’s desire for a woman with a beauty never known before. The simplicity in Stevie’s lyrics when expressing love is one of his understated talents. There really wasn’t much else to think about behind “I’d like to go there, take me right away” – it could have whatever meaning you wanted and it was effective.
Up next is my favorite song of all time and the one that almost seemed like it was meant to happen in light of Stevie’s brush with death. “Higher Ground” fused rock and funk together unlike anyone in the era with the exception of Funkadelic and perhaps the Isley Brothers. A song about gaining a higher consciousness with a prophetic hook – “I’m so darn glad He let me try it again/cause my last time on Earth I lived a whole world of sin/I’m so glad that I knew more than I knew then/Gonna keep on tryin’ til I reach my highest ground!”
Stevie would often say after the accident that he was reaching for higher ground and with that song soon becoming Number One R&B and top 5 pop, it had meaning behind it and I’d put it in my Stevie top five without hesitation.
The moral and social theme continues with even more funk/rock fusion and gospel inflections on “Jesus Children of America.” On “Jesus Children,” Stevie encourages moralists to look inside and make sure the righteous are walking the walk along with talking the talk.
If “Golden Lady” is about love anew, then “All in love is fair” is what happens when love is over. Stevie, playing some SAD piano and Fender parts, pours out his heart about love being a crazy game, something most people can relate to, especially “All has changed with time, the future none can see.”
“Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing” starts off comically with Stevie mackin’ a woman in what Dave Chappelle would call “Spanish gibberish.” Then the slick rhythm with bongos and shakers takes over and Stevie spins a tale about a waiting a woman to come off her trip so that he can be there for her.
Closing out the album is Stevie’s second of three cannon shots fired at then-President Richard Nixon, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.” Like “Big Brother” before and “You haven’t done nothin” after, “Misstra” attacks Nixon’s handling of Watergate (as it became bigger and bigger), the end of the Vietnam war and of course, the mistreatment of the poor and disenfranchised.
Innervisions was Stevie’s second straight album of the year Grammy winner and it stands the test of time, as most of his work does. Innervisions, to me, marked the maturation of Stevie as a songwriter. While his previous three albums with total control (Where I’m coming from, Music of my mind and Talking Book) showcased his considerable musicianship, Innervisions’ lyricism dominates those before and after it. The sound also matured as the funk/rock fusion he explored started to sound more cohesive.
And to think it was almost the last we heard of Stevie Wonder. Thankfully, it wasn’t.